By Charles K. Briskin
While the spring season brings about much joy, light and warmth, it also provides us with some of the more challenging Torah portions from our rich tradition.
Thankfully, the beginning verses of Parshat Kedoshim provide much-needed inspiration. The commandments found within the first 19 verses of Kedoshim articulate some of our primary ethical values which, to this day, continue to govern and guide our lives.
Parshat Kedoshim expresses our responsibility to the poor; in ancient times, our farmer ancestors were commanded to leave the corners of their fields and the gleanings of the harvest that fell behind for the poor to gather and thus provide sustenance for their families. We are commanded to be honest and fair — to not take advantage of or mock the blind or deaf. We are commanded to govern our society justly and fairly. These are among the most inspiring in all of Torah.
Three specific commandments from this portion motivate me in countless areas of my life. Leviticus 19:16 commands, “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Leviticus 19:34 commands, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love [the stranger] as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Lastly, a verse that even our sages consider to be among the most important in all of our tradition, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
Loving our neighbor as ourselves is, according to midrash, the foundation of all mitzvot.
“Our rabbis taught: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses. The prophet Micah reduced them to three mitzvot: ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. The prophet Isaiah based all the commandments upon two of them: Keep justice and righteousness. Rabbi Akiva taught: The great principle of the Torah is expressed in the mitzvah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” How can this one commandment form the basis for all others, according to Akiva at least? From the response of Hillel. When asked by a potential convert to Judaism, “teach me all of Torah while I stand on one foot,” the great First century sage and leader, Hillel, responded thoughtfully and patiently, “What is Torah? What is hateful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
Living by this value to love our neighbors requires us to cultivate many traits including empathy and respect, and modeling them for others, especially the person who is quite different from you.
Not standing idly by, loving the stranger and loving your neighbor all speak to a fundamental principle described in the very first chapter of Genesis. God created every human being in God’s image. Therefore, when we look into the face of another person, we see the face of God.
Imagine a world where we more easily see God in the face of the other. This approach to engaging “the other” might better inform our response, for example, to the ongoing crisis at our Southern border, and throughout the country.
If we are not moved by haunting images of frightened children, separated from their families, and living in understaffed and under resourced makeshift shelters, then we are not truly seeing the face of God in the other.
If we are not moved by the plight of the the refugee or asylum seeker, stranded in extended limbo on the other side of the border, trying to navigate lawfully what has become a very lengthy and byzantine process to enter our country, then we are not truly seeing the face of God in the other.
If we are not moved by the stories of undocumented men and women, otherwise living quietly and lawfully in our communities, who are detained and immediately deported by I.C.E., resulting in the removal of the primary source of financial support of their family, then we are not truly seeing the face of God in the other.
If we, as immigrants ourselves or descendants of immigrants cannot see in the face of a Central American refugee the face of our parents or grandparents, then we are not truly seeing the face of God in the other.
If, however, we heed the commandments to love the stranger, love our neighbor and do not stand idly by, and respond with activism and engagement, advocacy and empathy, we will truly see the face of God in the other and live by the vision and values of our tradition.
Much needs to be done to lift up issues of immigrant justice and respond to the plight of so many. A number of fine organizations in our area, especially HIAS, are responding powerfully. Opportunities to engage are abundant.
In this moment, may the lessons of Parshat Kedoshim continue to inspire us into action, enabling us to reach our full potential in the many ways we respond to the commanding voice that emanates from Torah: “Be holy because I, God, am holy.”
Charles K. Briskin is the senior rabbi of Shir Ami Bucks County Congregation in Newtown and a former member of the Commission on Social Action of the Religious Action Center. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.