Friday, April 25, 2014

Holy Love

26 Nissan 5774 / April 25-26, 2014

In this week’s portion, Kedoshim, we find a slew of guidelines for how to treat others in polite society. Under the overarching theme of aspiring to be “holy,” we’re instructed to leave the corners of our fields and vineyards (as well as anything that falls to the ground while being collected) for the poor, to pay day laborers on the same day, to avoid causing harm to the deaf and blind, to rise before and respect the elderly, to refrain from cursing at our parents, to treat our bodies as sacred, and again to refrain from certain (largely family-based) forbidden sexual relationships.

In Kedoshim (which itself is the plural form in Hebrew of the word “holy”), we also find the Jewish version of the Golden Rule:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen; Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18)

Some of you may be familiar with the phrase in Hebrew: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha.”

Our tradition puts tremendous influence on this instruction. Some of our most cherished ancient rabbinic teachers actually designated it as the very core of the Torah.

For example, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 30b) we learn:

Rabbi Akiva taught: [Love your fellow as yourself] is the most important rule in the Torah.”

In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a) we find Rabbi Hillel delivering a similar message, utilizing the negative construct:

Hillel said to him: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Torah – the rest is commentary; go and learn it. 

At first glance, one might think the concept leaves little room for empathy. In acting a certain way, one could justify said action by saying: “Since I wouldn’t have a problem if the other person took such an action and I was in his place, it’s thus okay if I take such an action – regardless of how the other person may actually feel about it.”

However, I would argue that upon a closer look, the strong (and veiling) counterargument is that given that we would want others to try and empathize with us before acting, so too should we strive to empathize and put ourselves in the place of others before acting – meaning that we cannot only be concerned with how we think certain actions will impact us – but rather, we must also be cognizant of how those actions might impact others.

This Shabbat, reflect on the following:

If you were to boil Judaism down to a single teaching, what would it be and why? 

Are we making enough of an effort to examine the potential outcomes of our actions and their impact on others before acting?

How can we strive to be more loving?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Self Love

Acharei Mot
April 11-12, 2014

This week’s portion, Acharei Mot, begins by sharing the specific instructions for what the High Priest is meant to do on Yom Kippur (the holiday is introduced as well).  We’re told that the High Priest is charged with making atonement for the Israelites and their sins once a year.  We also find the fascinating invention of the scapegoat – literally a goat that the High Priest would place the sins of the Israelites on and then send out into the desert. We learn that the average Israelite is no longer permitted to offer up sacrifices / burnt offerings on his/her own, but must utilize the priests (it’s often good to have a monopoly when you’re in charge…). We also are reminded that consuming blood is a no-no, and are provided with a large list of prohibited sexual relationships (sleeping with family members is generally a no, in case you were wondering).

I’m particularly intrigued by the order given in the Torah as it relates to the High Priest’s atonement efforts on Yom Kippur.  We learn that the High Priest is instructed to make expiation (1) for himself, (2) for his household, and then (3) for the nation as a whole.

Why this order? Aren’t the priest’s actions really about the nation as a whole? Don’t we often say that we want our leaders to be selfless, putting the needs of the nation ahead of their own? Why wouldn’t the High Priest atone on behalf of the entire nation first, and only worry about himself later?

Practically speaking, there’s an argument to be made that one needs to have atoned oneself in order to have obtained the state of heightened purity necessary to be in a position to atone for others.

But in a more meta way, I think our major takeaway point needs to be that before we can go out and take care of others, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. Are we exercising regularly and eating healthily? Are we getting enough sleep? Are we forgiving ourselves for our own perceived shortcomings as we walk through the world?

Are we recognizing that sometimes those we hold up as leaders also need private time on their own and with their families?

By taking care of ourselves (and recognizing that we all need to do so), we truly become capable of taking care of others.