V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha
Love your fellow human being as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)
“This is the central principle of the Torah” (Rabbi Akiva, 2nd C C.E.)
“The rest is commentary – go and study” (Rabbi Hillel, 1st C B.C.E.)
This week we reach the pinnacle of the Torah, chapter 19 of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim. The chapter begins with YHVH instructing the entire Children of Israel, “You must be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy.” What follows are the ethical behaviors that the community of Israel must fulfill in order to manifest this collective quality of kedusha – holiness. These instructions parallel the Ten Commandments of the Book of Exodus, where we are also told that we must fulfill these commandments in order to become a holy people. But the Holiness Laws of Leviticus actually transcend the Ten Commandments, for after repeating most of the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Ten Commandments, the Holiness Laws culminate in the positive decree to love your neighbor.
The commandment to love here is clearly not meant to address our feelings, but rather our behavior. In fact, a more accurate translation of v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha might be “Behave lovingly toward your neighbor, as you would wish for yourself.
But what constitutes loving behavior? The verses that precede this one tell us what we must do, and it is a tall order
You shall not render an unfair decision, nor pervert justice; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – treat all people fairly.
Do not slander others.
Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is being shed.
If you see your neighbor committing an offense, do not hate them in your heart; rather, admonish them and try to interrupt their behavior. If you do not do this, you bear some of the guilt for their misdeed.
Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your neighbor; rather you must love your neighbor as yourself. I am YHVH, the Source of all life. (19:15-19)
Oh my! We are not being told to be merely tolerant. We are not being told to just live and let live. We are being told that to fulfill our collective potential we must take an active interest in each other’s lives. We must care and act when other lives are at stake, or when we know that someone is headed down a dark path. In a holy society, there are no innocent bystanders.
Underlying all of these commandments is the fundamental assertion of the Torah that every single human being is of infinite value, because every single human being is made in the Divine image. In a holy society, no one is expendable. Everyone merits fair and dignified treatment, simply because they are human. If we are to be a holy people, all of our decisions, all of our communal norms, all of our policies must align with and grow out of this understanding.
Judaism, it has been said, is a 3,000-year-long discussion of ethics, and the Torah is our foundation. Being a “practicing” Jew means that we take on that challenge of continuing to think and act in ways that make us more ethical and make our communities more loving and just. If we follow Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Akiva’s lead – and that is what Judaism has followed for all of these centuries – then there is no way around it: Being a good Jew means putting ethical behavior at the center of our existence.
I offer these thoughts humbly, for I am humbled by the enormity of the demand placed upon me as a Jew. I fail so often to live up to these principles! But I am also inspired to be the inheritor of our aspirational teachings and by our unbending ideals. I am inspired to belong to a tradition that demands the best in me. Fortunately there are plenty of Jewish holidays for rejoicing in life’s goodness and bounty, so that our spirits might be regularly replenished. Meanwhile, we have holy work to do.
Shabbat Shalom and love,