ISSUES OF FAITH: ‘Love thy neighbor’ a call to action

The central tenet for Jewish behavior is the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” found in the portion K’doshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27).

This portion is in the exact center of the Torah, reflecting its significance in Judaism.

K’doshim means holy ones or sanctity, and contains what is called the “Holiness Code” which, along with the precept to love one’s neighbor as oneself, gives us three important moral teachings: to leave some of the harvest for gleaning by the poor, to not withhold the wages of a laborer until the next day, and to not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in the way of the blind. All three of these teachings show the importance of taking care of the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the workers and those with disabilities. This is how we can be holy.

For many rabbis and scholars, this portion is the high point of Leviticus. After learning the rules about what we must not do, we finally reach a positive directive we can embrace. “Adonai spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2).

This pronouncement was directed not only to the priests, but to the entire community of Israel, indicating we all have the capacity of holiness. This commandment is more difficult to follow than it seems because we are being told not just how to act, but how “to be.” And how we are to be is to be like God.

This is quite a daunting command. Unlike other religions where God is all powerful, omniscient and quite distant from humans, here we are to see God as approachable, with human qualities that we are to emulate.

The idea of being holy can have the expectation of withdrawing and removing oneself from society, but since God told Moses to speak to the whole Israelite nation, the holiness we seek is found within community, not separate from it.

It’s easy to be holy and love everyone while staying separate, but it gets very messy when we live amongst others as Judaism demands.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is great in principle. Until you have a neighbor that you find quite unlovable.

Following this commandment can mean giving up some of our desires and freedoms for the greater good.

American culture emphasizes freedom and individuality and often glorifies the loner.

However, this portion teaches that our strength is in community. When we are involved with others, though we have increased responsibilities, our relationships create a web that supports us. In a desire for radical freedom, we lose all the beauty and benefits from community.

A perfect example of this “freedom” and how it can impact everyone is seen in the refusal of some to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The reasons given range from “my freedom” to “I’m healthy, so I don’t need it.”

Unfortunately, those rationales don’t take into account the consequences this decision can have on our loved ones and the entire community.

This is where loving one’s neighbor as oneself should be foremost in people’s minds.

Rabbi Akiva, a famous First Century rabbi, called “love your neighbor” as the “great rule” of the entire Torah, and the “qualifying criterion for all the other commandments.” The Holiness Code taught the world how to treat others, both friend and foe, the wealthy and poor, the strong and vulnerable.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut called K’doshim the “climatic chapter of Leviticus” and the one most often read and quoted, calling it a remarkable summons to become holy by imitating God. Holiness comes from being just, humane and sensitive to the treatment of others. Not only is holy behavior outlined in this portion, but we are taught that the motive behind our behavior should be that we be holy like God — a truly revolutionary concept.

The command to love your neighbor as yourself in K’doshim is the oldest written version of this commandment, and Judaism led the way for all the Abrahamic religions in making this the focal point of the faith.

May we endeavor to stop focusing on ourselves, and make this commandment be the guiding light in our lives.

Not only can we be holy like God, but as a consequence, our loved ones and community will flourish in safety and health.

Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.

_________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected] olympus.net.

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