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Making the Ideal Real

This week we read the great Torah portion of 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 the wake of the attack on the Chabad Synagogue in Poway, California just last week, 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 invade a house of prayer? Can this ideal possibly be made real?

But in true Jewish fashion Kedoshim does not treat this as simply an idealistic statement. It is instead made into a practical imperative. Kedoshim builds up to this magnificent religious commitment with a series of ethical injunctions: leave a corner of your field for the poor and the stranger. Don’t leave a stumbling block before the morally blind. Care for the widow and the orphan. Be honest in your business dealings. Have equal weights and measures. Be holy, because God is holy—that is, be ethical, because that is the heart of holiness.

The way to love your neighbor is by treating him or her both fairly and honestly. It is that notion of the pragmatic approach to love that is just so Jewish. We are not obligated to convert our neighbors to our own views on things. We are not obligated to save our neighbors from their own belief systems. We are not obligated to change our neighbors into carbon copies of ourselves.

Rather, we are commanded to treat them as we would wish to be treated: respectfully, honorably, honestly, charitably, even generously.

That is love of one’s neighbor, as expressed in a functional, healthy society—or community, or synagogue.

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