We have just completed several weeks of considering foundational mitzvot that inform and guide us in developing and living out our relationship with God. In Micah’s words, we’ve begun to get a good sense of what it means to “walk humbly with our God.”
Now we will begin to turn our attention in the next several sessions to our relationships with others in our world and in our lives - how we are to do justly and love mercy toward them, how we best live among our fellow human beings and other living creatures.
In a sense, even in these ways of living, it’s still about walking with God, in that there’s a sense, as we discussed last year, in which there is a triangular relationship in all aspects of social encounter - there’s God; there’s the other; and there’s me. There’s mutual duty and responsibility. We bear the duty to live as God expects, as does the other. And God serves for all of us as the One Creative Force, the One Redeemer, the Guide who can ultimately, with our help, unite us and the whole world in living in accord with the Divine Way.
We will begin today with the mitzvah that is core to doing justly and loving mercy - and that is, of course, the Golden Rule we encountered in Vayikra, to love our neighbor as ourself. Then we’ll work our way through a hundred or so mitzvot that help define, illustrate, and give meaning to “love of neighbor.” We’ll encounter all sorts of neighbors. We’ll have all sorts of encounters. We’ll be challenged to put ourselves in all sorts of situations in which often it’s not easy to know how we can best live and show that love.
These mitzvot walk us through a true cross-section of encounters and challenge us as to how to live by the rule. We study them. We learn. We try. We fall short. We keep at it. It’s the intention of these mitzvot that we, in lots of study and lots of living, learn the ethical way, and begin to habituate ourselves to understanding it and living by it.
Finally, by way of introduction, I want to say that I believe God gives us this guidance for the very reason we value direction, rules, habits in all things we care about and want to excel at. Here God clearly makes it a matter of the highest priority that we excel in how we live with others, especially human beings who, like us, are created in God’s image.
Jesus points us in this direction by teaching the second great commandment. Let’s begin the work of understanding how we can best live true to it.
I. Read Leviticus 19:18 (focus here only on love of neighbor clause). We start right in the center with the crown jewel.
A. Today we’ll dive deeper into it and work outward from it over the next several weeks into the related mitzvot to flesh out our understanding of this core teaching and how God helps us live true to it in our lives. 1. Let me begin with this question for people of faith: what is the foundation for this mitzvah, what central idea gives it its real power? On what basis do people who believe in God even begin to get to its importance and meaning?
1. Leviticus 19:18 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
1. What’s the grounding for this mitzvah? What do we mean by love? What does it mean to love oneself but also to love another as oneself? Does this love of the other mean that we want the same for the other as we want for our self? What does living by this mitzvah achieve?
1. (I think it begins with the idea that we human beings, all of us, were created in God’s image and, thus, must show a respect and regard for each other as we show it for ourselves. Our concern for others must be on a par with that for ourselves.)
2. When we say fellow or neighbor, do we mean a narrow group of people, such as co-religionists, or do we mean a broader group connoted by the word, other?
(We talked about this when we worked through Vayikra. There is a sense among some that the narrower group was intended. Yet, for Jesus and certain sages and rabbis, especially those who teach in the prophetic tradition of “on that day” before the mountain when all come, there is an ever-expanding notion to the group intended by the word, “fellow.” On the other hand, must we not admit that the work gets harder the further the other is from our group? We aspire to build the circle as wide as we can, but we would be naive to think it’s easy to get there or that we can succeed quickly.)
B. Note it’s not just respect and regard that are called for. It’s love. What’s the significance of that?
(It’s chesed. It’s lovingkindness. It’s compassion, especially in moments in which we and the other would most need care and love and kindness (such as times of mourning, sickness, or special joy). There will be so many mitzvot that flow from this mitzvah. We’ll see that when we get to them. We will understand, for example, how we would not steal another’s property, if we truly loved the other as our self. Or commit adultery, if we love him/her as ourself. Etc., etc. I think this is why this was seen as so important among the commandments by Jesus.)
C. 1. What does it mean to love oneself, but also to love another as oneself?
(It begins with love of self, which means to understand one’s needs and care enough and act effectively enough with focus, strength, and skill to meet them.
Yet, it involves a discipline and limits on the self so that there’s room and time for the other. All the ways in which one develops a bloated ego, as discussed in our Bible study - all of these represent excessive self-love. When we cross the line of seeking and grabbing more than what we’re due, or slandering another, or garnering power unjustly, or acting corruptly to get more for ourselves, we come close to that condition we studied at some length, tsara’at, which we came to see as being caused, at least in part, by a bloated and unhealthy sense of self.)
2. So, we must create room for the other through constraints on the time and devotion we commit to ourselves. But does this love we show the other mean we want for the other what we want for ourselves?
(Yes and no. Yes, in that we want what is good for ourselves and the other. But, no, in the sense that precisely what is right for me might not be what is needed by, or best for, the other. Part of the love we show the other is to understand to our best ability what exactly and specifically is good for the other. And part of love is taking the time and making the effort as effectively as we can to help the other get to what is good, and indeed uniquely so for him/her.)
2. Can you think of an example of some need you have that is different than the need of a family member or friend and how love of that person would require something different from you than love of your self? Put another way, have you ever made the mistake of trying to help another in a way that might have been good for you but not for the other person? And how do we get the wisdom and strength to love the other and act to their good?
(Recognize that we certainly have similarities in our shared humanity and other aspects of closeness. This puts us in the ballpark, but it’s not sufficient alone. Plus, since we both share our creation in God’s image, we both share many things and we have a common Source to Whom we can turn to understand the special and unique ways in which we should act and get the wisdom and strength to do so. Having and using this “triangular relationship” is very helpful to getting to success. Indeed isn’t it implied as needed by the addition of the language in the verse, “I am HaShem?” Yet, we must work very hard to see and understand the other’s real needs and what we can do through our love and effort to help further them.)
3. What does living by this mitzvah help us achieve?
(The sages say it leads to peace among peoples. This is partly because this goes beyond following the law, though following the law is essential. For example, if we love our neighbor as our self, we would go to his/her house to help avoid damage when a storm is approaching. This is not required by the law, but it is impelled by the power of love. One must not only avoid slandering another person; one must go to great (though honest and appropriate) lengths to ensure the other is held in high esteem as one would want for oneself. People who live by such love tend to find the precious condition of peace in their midst. Further, the sages teach that our spirituality is caught up in how we live in accord with this direction to love another as ourself.)
D. But isn’t this direction impossible to fulfill and a sort of exaggeration? Can we literally love another to the degree we do ourself? And should we?
(The great sage, Ramban, says it is an exaggeration and we shouldn’t. Indeed he points to guidance in the Bible where we take precedence, for example, in certain circumstances, of saving ourselves first. Ramban falls back to this understanding: we should selflessly desire goodness for the other and seek the benefit for the other in all aspects of life as one does for oneself. Is that an amendment we can accept?
Didn’t we deal with this challenge a bit when we discussed how this is not intended to mean that we want the exact same for the other as for ourselves?
Hillel limits the mitzvah by stating it in the negative: that which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. That helps a little, to be sure, if we choose to go there. Rambam disagrees with Hillel and says the positive requirements are very much intended. Where are we on this?)
II-IV. Read Leviticus 19:17. There are three mitzvot in this single verse. Let’s look at each.
2. Leviticus 19:17 17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
2. What does it mean not to hate another in one’s heart, and why would it be bad to do so? How should we appropriately correct another who may be doing wrong?
A. What does it mean not to hate another in our heart, and why is this bad?
(It does not mean to remove all negative views/feelings. Nor does it mean that we are to remove our awareness of a real grievance and the expectation of righting it. Nor does it prohibit hate for an evildoer or one who hates God and Divine ways, which is actually mandated. But what it means is we shouldn’t allow an erupted emotion of hate to invade and take over our heart as to others in the general course of life with its typical encounters and conflicts. We must keep ourselves free of imprisonment in these poisoned feelings that we try to keep hidden.
This is so, first, because it is bad for us. It wastes our time and spirit. It diverts us from what we must do and be. And it sours us and weakens and harms our spirit.
Further, it puts us on the verge of taking harmful action to the other for whom we have these feelings. It’s as if we’re poised to be treacherous to the other person all the time the hate is stewing in our heart, and the object of our ill will doesn’t even know and can’t respond, fix, or defend himself/herself. This action that might arise from the hate could be unethical or even illegal. Even coming close to crossing the boundary into wrongdoing, which hatred often propels us to, is a concern of this mitzvah.
Surely, the peace, the sense of brotherhood and solidarity, that we discussed as a byproduct of a community characterized by mutual love of neighbor, is not possible in a society in which people hate others in their heart. How can God dwell in one’s heart when that space is filled with hate?)
B. Read Leviticus 19:17 again. We also derive the mitzvah from this verse that we must warn or correct a neighbor who does wrong or sins. So, we’re not to harbor hate but we must correct the wrongdoer. What’s the balance here?
(It’s hard in an era of “I’m ok, you’re ok” to do this, but God wants us to stand up for the Divine way - not for our own interest or power, but for God’s interest. We don’t keep it all inside. The balance is to be respectful to the other but be true to preserving God’s way. This also keeps us from harboring ill feelings in our heart, by giving us a proper way to place and handle them. We can’t hide from responsibility, though acting is hard. This is the healthiest place to be - both for ourselves and for the community in which we live. We’re all guarantors of the Way!
If we love others as ourselves, we would want this outcome - not to be secretly hated but to be corrected when needed, but in a caring manner, giving us a path to getting right.)
C. Read Leviticus 19:17 once again. There’s more here. While we must correct one who is in the wrong, there is a constraint on how we do so. What is it, and why?
(We must not shame the other in the process. Doing so is its own wrong. Further, it suggests a problem in our motivation if we rebuke with bad motive or effect. Again, we wouldn’t want to be shamed in a rebuke, nor should we do so to another. Protecting our dignity and that of others is crucial, as we are indeed creatures made in God’s image.
What does this mean? In private? Gently? Not to be embarrassed? If there’s no repentance, must we be more forceful? When it’s a private grievance, for if the sin is general, broad, and deep, one perhaps should or must be more forceful and public.
All of this is, once again, in the interest of the interests of heaven and peace on earth.)
V-VI. Read 19:18, focusing on the negative clause. It contains two mitzvot - not to bear a grudge and not to take vengeance on another. What’s new here, and what wrongs are addressed? Let’s start with bearing a grudge and then move to taking vengeance.
3. Leviticus 19:18 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
3. What is involved in bearing a grudge, and what’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with seeking vengeance?
(Bearing a grudge is short of harboring hate, but it certainly can lead to it and other wrongdoing, including the offense here of taking vengeance. Enmity finds fertile ground in which to grow in the mind where a grudge is borne. Further, it wastes time and energy and diverts us from God-given tasks. We wouldn’t want grudges borne against us, nor should we bear them against others. Again, all of this makes peace difficult and causes the social web to rip, if not dissolve.
4. (3 Verses)
Leviticus 19:16 16 Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.
Leviticus 25:17 17 You must not cheat each other but fear your God because I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:14 14 You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord.
4A. What’s the harm in bearing tales about others, and why are we discouraged from doing so?
(What we say about others changes their name, reputation, and image. Since we’re dealing with a creation in God’s image, we must show the greatest care in our words. Gossip, especially false and/or damaging words, about another is, thus, harmful to God, and to the degree it’s a theft of God’s work and the other’s most precious property (his or her good name), it’s a most grievous offense.
Plus, again, our time and energy spent in this behavior, as well as that of those who listen and act on what we say, are diversions from our God-given work. Also, always keep in mind, going back to our central mitzvah here, that a gossiper would never like another gossiping in the same way about him/her. Rather than contributing to peace, tale-bearing, our sages taught, “can ruin the world.”)
4B. Why and how are we not to wrong another by speech?
More generally, we’re not to wrong another by speech. Why do we have this additional mitzvah?
(I think it’s here to make us think of all the ways by which we can harm/distress another by any sort of speech, and, because of the power of speech, to show care in the impact of our words. It might be casual remarks, or advice, or opinions or views generally. But, in all uses of words, shaming, wounding, humiliating, causing unjust pain - all these ways of being rob another of their God-given dignity and are an offense both to the other and God. At bottom, speech is a Divine aspect within us, and we are to use it in accord with Divine purpose.)
(a) reminding one who has repented of past sins, b) telling one who is beset with ailments that he/she is suffering because of his/her faults, c) offering to help one meet business needs but sending the one in the wrong direction, d) talking with a merchant about items up for sale when one has no intention to purchase.)
4C. What does it mean not to curse the deaf, and what’s the wrong in it?
(The tradition is this is not about a physically deaf person. It could be simply cursing a person to others and out of the person’s earshot. The person is hurt and doesn’t know it in real time and can’t defend himself/herself. When we do something like this, it may be the first step in hurting the person, both by words and perhaps physically, We start, thus, down a path that goes nowhere good. Further, as we have seen in all these mitzvot: 1) we wouldn’t want to be treated this way ourselves; 2) the time we and the listener spend is wasteful and diversionary from our God-given work, and 3) this behavior worsens relations among people and fosters strife rather than peace.)
4D. What does it mean to put a stumbling block in the way of the blind, and how do we avoid doing so?
(We must not give misleading advice to another person or maneuver another into wrongdoing. The actual language suggests a situation in which the one advising is in a position of power and the person who is getting the advice is weak, perhaps especially in need of advice (thus, the comparison with the blind). Of course, one could argue the adviser of one seeking/needing advice is always in the stronger position and has the power to help or cause the advisee to stumble.
We can either help the person in need with positive, properly motivated advice and guidance, or we can “block” the person with unsuitable or deceptive advice or abet “blinded” behavior, even wrongdoing. If we were in the position of the “blind” person, we would want constructive help, so we should give it if we were in the other position. Having trust that people operate in this manner is a characteristic of a healthy community, one that is in sync with God’s expectations.)
5. (2 verses)
Deuteronomy 5:21 21 Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife. Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
Exodus 20:17 17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
5. What does coveting involve, where can it lead us astray, and why must we be vigilant about what these mitzvot teach?
(Once we desire another’s property, we are prone to slipping into coveting it, which puts us close to a temptation to acquire it unjustly. Further, all such use of time is wasteful, taking us away from God-given work. Whether we actually commit wrongdoing with respect to the other or his/her property, we are using our energy inappropriately, likely building resentment, maybe even obsessing about things that are not for us in any respect. Once the desire begins to emerge, this Divine wisdom teaches us to see it and curb it, lest it lead to coveting, and then, even worse, theft or robbery.
The owner and the coveter, of course, would have a relationship in which covetousness, with its deception and perhaps wrongful intention, defines its nature. Neither party is advantaged by such behavior, whether larceny results from it or not. Society is undermined, and any progress mankind has made toward implementing God’s plan on earth is set back.)
A. One other point: doesn’t advertising and other cultural behavior in our society often work against the principle of this mitzvah by saying in subtle but powerful ways: “you, too, can and should have x!” We are to “go for the gusto,” own the most alluring and expensive goods, borrow to acquire them, and look and be just like all those happy friends on Facebook. Doesn’t all this heighten desire, and, if such desire isn’t met, can’t it lead to disappointment or resentfulness? How can all of this not cause some degree of desire for the material resources of our more successful neighbors? And, in certain circumstances, if desire bloats into larcenous thought, couldn’t this contribute to larcenous ways of acquiring them?
C. We won’t delve into it here, but I want to pose the question of whether this problem has slipped into our politics and policy? I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t seek fairness in our economy and justice in the manner our society is governed. But do some go beyond fairness and justice to stoke class warfare and do so on the basis of coveting the property of others and working to re-distribute it out of the very feelings and emotions these mitzvot are designed to curb?
6. Leviticus 19:32 32 You must rise in the presence of an old person and respect the elderly. You must fear your God; I am the Lord.
6. Why and how do we honor the scholar and the aged?
(First, there’s a call to respect the teacher (Torah scholar, generally) insofar as he/she stands for wisdom in the way of God; and there’s a call to respect the older person insofar as he/she stands for experience (and seeing and living amidst God’s deeds and wonders) and a keeper of our traditions. We are to emulate them and incorporate these ways and values in our own lives. (Some see the scholar and the elderly as one and the same.)
Next Week - Relationships with the Weak.