Parshas Kedoshim (5774)
In what has become the most over-quoted Biblical passage in the history of mankind, the Torah teaches us in this week's portion – “Ve'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha - Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). This is quite difficult to comprehend. After all, G-d created human beings and is well acquainted with our nature, so He should know that it's practically impossible to love someone else as much as we love ourselves!
Furthermore, the Torah seems to be commanding us to love everybody. Now, I ask you, how can G-d expect that of us? After all, what if the guy next door to me keeps blowing his leaves on to my property? What if my boss is a real jerk? What if my mother-in-law makes my life miserable? (Just a hypothetical scenario, of course.) Am I really supposed to love these people?
To make things even more confusing, the Torah concludes the commandment to love your neighbor with the words - “Ani Hashem - I am G-d". What exactly is G-d's point in adding those words to the commandment? Does G-d tell us "Don't eat pork - I am G-d" or "Give charity - I am G-d"? Of course He's G-d - who else is telling us what to do - but why the need to remind us of that point right here in this particular commandment?
WHY CAN’T WE JEWS SIMPLY GET ALONG WITH EACH OTHER?
Tragically, it seems that, for the better part of our history, we have been failing miserably at even getting along with each other, let alone loving each other. From the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE – which according to the Sages of the Talmud occurred as a result of all the sinas chinam (baseless hatred) that Jews had for one another – all the way through to our own times – when we find Jews walking past each other on the street without even acknowledging each other’s existence, let alone saying “hello” or “Good Shabbos” - we just haven’t been able to come together as one big, happy family, the way G-d wants us to be.
The Mahara”l of Prague, a great Rabbi and philosopher who lived in the 1500’s, wrote in his book Netzach Yisrael (chapter 25) that he was approached by a non-Jew who asked him the following question:
“You Jews say that you are G-d’s Chosen people and that you are elevated above the nations. Yet you are always fighting with each other, and each one of you tries to outdo and best his fellow, seeking to put him in his place. Doesn't the Bible teach “Love your neighbor as yourself”? ... Or maybe you Jews interpret that verse to mean that you only have to love and respect your neighbor if he is kamocha – “as yourself” - equal to you, on the same level. And since each of you considers himself on a higher level than his fellow Jews, he has no obligation to love them.”
That non-Jew sure had a cynical sense of humor, didn’t he? But the truth is that it’s no laughing matter. After all, he really has a point there. We Jews do tend to be judgmental, and we often like to consider ourselves more elevated than others around us who are not on the same religious level, or who don’t enjoy the same social status, etc. etc.
So what’s the solution? How are we ever going to be able to fulfill the commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves” – thus reversing the historical trend of baseless hatred and bringing about the future Redemption – when we can’t even get along with each other?
CRIMINALS ARE PEOPLE, TOO ....
I believe that the key to understanding the mitzvah of “loving your neighbor as yourself”, and to finding a working solution to the seemingly eternal lack of unity and togetherness that plagues our people, lies in a proper appreciation of what is really being asked of us by G-d.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 52b writes that it is incumbent upon the members of the Jewish Beis Din (High Court), who are carrying out a death sentence for a convicted murderer, to execute the condemned person in the quickest and most painless way possible. The rationale given by the Sages for this directive is that the Torah commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and we should therefore accord the condemned individual the same respect and dignity that we would want for ourselves. Isn’t that strange? The Torah commands us to love our neighbor – i.e. someone with whom we might have differences of opinion, but who is still a pretty decent person - but this guy is a criminal! And the Talmud says that we still have to love him and treat him as we would want ourselves to be treated?
The great Chasidic Rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchok of Pshis’cha, explains homiletically that what the Torah means when it asks us to love our neighbor as we do ourselves is that just as with our own bodies we may value one part more than another – such as the heart more than a hand, or an eye more than a foot – nevertheless we take great caution not to allow any part of ourselves to be injured; so it should be with our fellow man. Even a person whom we esteem the least deserves great respect. In other words, though we might differ from each other in many ways – in personality, looks, social status, level of religious observance, ideological leaning, etc. – and some among us might even be criminals, who, by virtue of their misdoings, have become “devalued” in our eyes, we are all part of the same body, and are thus deserving of respect and appreciation.
Each and every Jew is part of an organic whole, and has an important role to play in the collective mission of our people. And though some people might be the brains of this Jewish body, or the heart, and still others might be the foot or even the toenail, each person is truly kamocha – “like yourself” and a part of you.
“WE’RE ALL CONNECTED”
The truth is that the reason why we should love and respect each and every person – and even those who don’t act as they should - goes much deeper. For the reality is that as much as we might consider ourselves “better” than the guy next door who doesn’t give as much charity, or more “religious” than the person we meet on the street who doesn’t wear the “right” color hat or Kippah (or maybe doesn’t wear a Kippah at all), or more “learned” than the guy who doesn’t even know what the Talmud is – that which we have in common with each other is far greater than that which differentiates us.
Imagine, for a moment, that you were in the synagogue one Shabbos morning, and the person sitting next to you was praying a little too loud for your tastes. And as you were about to finalize your negative impression of this person, someone whispered to you in your ear that this fellow was in fact the Rabbi’s son. That would no doubt cause you to rethink your assessment of him. Now imagine how you would feel towards the person who was praying if someone told you that this man was the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. You would gain newfound respect for him, regardless of how he prays. Now what if they told you that not only is this fellow the grandson of the Chief Rabbi, but he is actually a direct descendant of the great Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen, the Chafetz Chaim, the leader of his generation. Then how would you feel towards him?!
If this is so, then how much respect and appreciation and love do we have to show to each and every person who is actually a tzelem elokim – who possesses a neshamah (soul) of amazing potential that is so great and so holy that it descends from G-d Al-mighty Himself!! And even if we don’t particularly care for our fellow Jew’s personality, religious leaning, standard of morality, etc., we must never forget that we are dealing with a person who is well connected, and whose neshamah reflects the very essence of G-d in heaven! Each person, even the lowest among us, possesses a cheilek elokah mima’al, a “portion from G-d above” (Job 31:2). And though we might differ in many ways, the greatness of the Divine soul that each of us has within ourselves, and that we all have in common, far outweighs those differences.
We can thus understand the meaning of the verse Ve'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha, ani Hashem as follows: “Love your neighbor as yourself“- because he truly is kamocha – your neighbor possesses a Divine neshamah just like you do and for that alone he deserves great love and respect - “I am G-d” – all of you, no matter what your station in life or level of observance, have My G-dliness inside of you!
So the next time we come across another Jew who looks different, thinks different, and acts different than we do – and we are about to judge him in an unfavorable light and/or totally ignore him and just walk straight by without saying hello – let’s remember that, in spite of all those differences, the person we are about to encounter is a tzelem elokim, a reflection of G-d Al-mighty. And no matter who that person is, he deserves to be acknowledged and respected and loved for that which he and you and all of us have in common – a Divine neshamah with infinite potential for greatness.
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH: A TRUE STORY OF ONE MAN’S LOVE FOR ALL PEOPLE
Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum, in her book Holy Brother - a collection of tales about the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach whose legendary love for all people knew no bounds - relates the following story:
Shlomo was delivering a lecture to Jewish members of Manhattan’s Diamond Dealers’ Club, when a man suddenly interrupted his talk and challenged him. “Shlomo!” he demanded, “We love your music, and your Chasidic tales are also very nice, but there’s one thing about you that bothers some of us and that we don’t understand: Why are you always so busy with low-lifes and meshuggeners (crazies)?” Shlomo thought for a moment and said, “You know, I’m sure that many of you here in this room are among the world’s greatest specialists when it comes to jewelry. Is that true?” Members of the audience nodded in quick agreement. “And,” Shlomo continued, “many of you are probably big experts in diamonds, right?” “Oh yes, we’re BIG experts!” the diamond dealers concurred. “So tell me,” Shlomo asked them, “Did you ever accidentally throw out a million dollar diamond in the garbage can?” Everyone in the room burst out laughing. “Are you crazy?” shouted a man. “A million dollar diamond in the rough? In a second we would know what we’re holding in our hands! We’re experts!” Shlomo then said in a quiet voice, “You know, my friends, I’ll let you in on a secret; I’m also an expert on diamonds. I walk the streets of the world every day and all I see are the most precious diamonds walking past me. Some of them you may have to pick up from the gutter and clean a bit, polish a little. But once you do, oh, how they shine! Mamesh (really) like the purest, most perfect gems you’ll ever uncover during your own distinguished careers. “So, my sweetest friends,” Shlomo concluded, “please try to remember this because it’s the most important thing you have to know in life. Everyone ... everyone ... is a diamond in the rough.”