How To Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
Posted on May 4, 2017
This week we read the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, a description of the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice. The code itself includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, and insists on fair business practices. It obligates us to live moral lives.
It’s important that this remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus. Kedoshim, the holiness code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah—that is, it forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text. And at that heart is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
This is an amazing, and perhaps utopian ideal—love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. If our society was actually rooted in such a conception how much better it would be for everyone!
In a world in which violent wars tear apart nations like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in which desperate refugees from famine and evil are turned aside from many rich nations, when terrorist attacks can strike anywhere at any time, the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself may seem particularly visionary. How can we believe in such a concept in a world in which horrible human violence can destroy anything? Can this utopian ideal of true love for all possibly be made real?
Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777
Lashon ha’Ra: Slander Destroys
Posted on April 27, 2017
This week we read the double Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora in the book of Leviticus, and a wholly unappetizing set of Torah portions it is indeed. Metzora, in particular, focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease of the ancient world. It’s true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantines to isolate it. But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service could scarcely be called a spiritually meaningful experience.
The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago, and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, which means leprosy, was itself, they said, an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech. Their interpretation was based on evidence in the Torah itself: Moses’ hand became leprous when he expressed doubt about the willingness of the people to believe in his mission (Exodus 4: 6-7), while Miriam was struck by leprosy when she spoke against Moses (Numbers 12: 1-15). The leper was a person who spoke badly about others.
Evil speech, lashon ha’ra, and it’s even darker partner, motzi shem ra, slander, were considered by the sages to be among the worst sins of all. What needed to be eliminated from society was not just the biological illness of leprosy but these terrible infections of slander and gossip.
Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Tazria/Metzora 5777