Torah poem: For a Reason
Rumi service PDF

This week's portion: on loving our neighbors

Here's the d'var Torah I'm planning to offer at tomorrow morning's Shabbat if you're coming to our Rumi service, you might want to skip this post so you can hear it tomorrow with fresh ears!

On loving our neighbors

הריני מקבל עלי
את מצות הברא
ואהבת לרעך כמוך
לרעך כמוך!

Behold, here I am
accepting upon myself
the mitzvah of the Creator:
to love my neighbor, my "other"
as myself
my other as myself.

I love this verse. It is one of my very favorite verses in the Torah -- and not just because there's a beautiful melody for it. It's the verse in the very middle of the Torah, more or less; the middle of the book of Leviticus, which is the middle book of the five. This is the very heart of the Torah. But the verse doesn't stand alone.

First we get ethical teachings about agriculture. When you harvest your fields and your vineyards, don't go all the way to the edges; leave something there so that the hungry can glean. Leave food for the poor and the stranger.

Few of us are farmers today, though here in northern Berkshire I know that some of us have gardens, and others are members of CSAs like Caretaker Farm. Caretaker gives surplus produce each week to the Berkshire Food Project. But for those of us who garden at home, how many of us could imagine opening our backyards to the needy? Maybe that prospect seemed less scary in Biblical days. Or maybe it didn't -- maybe this teaching was always meant to push a little bit beyond our comfort zone.

Don't steal, Torah says. That's pretty basic. Don't swear falsely. But then Torah urges us not to keep a laborer's wages overnight: if you employ someone, give them their money right away, so that they can sleep and eat and be safe. In the Torah's understanding, keeping someone's paycheck until morning is a kind of theft.

Don't insult the Deaf, Torah tells us. And maybe that means exactly what it says: don't mock someone just because they can't hear. And maybe it also means, just because someone can't hear you -- maybe they're Deaf, or maybe they're hearing but they're out of the room -- don't say unkind things. Don't speak ill of people, whether or not they can hear what you have to say. Act as though Someone were listening, and only say things which you wouldn't mind being overheard.

Don't put a stumbling block before the blind: don't trick people, don't trip people up, don't obstruct. Literal blindness or figurative blindness, the teaching still holds true.

Don't defer to the poor because you feel sorry for them, and don't defer to the rich because you feel awe of their money. Be fair, no matter what someone's wealth or poverty or social standing might be. Whether it's someone who's down on their luck and seems like a victim, or someone who's riding high and seems like a perennial victor, try to relate to them fairly, without letting envy or admiration or contempt color your judgements.

Don't profit by the blood of your fellow. Don't pursue your livelihood in a way which endangers someone else. Don't profit from someone else's suffering.

Don't hate your brother or your sister in your heart. You can give someone a gentle reproof, but don't incur the karmic baggage of holding a grudge. That's not good for you or for the person you're angry at.

It's only after all of these commandments that we reach "Love your neighbor, your other, as yourself."

"Love your neighbor as yourself" isn't a polite pleasantry. It's not a new-age idea we can parrot and feel nice about. This is, our song tells us, "the mitzvah of the Creator" -- this is God's own mitzvah. One Hasidic teaching holds that God created humanity because God needed a "neighbor," an "other," with whom to be in relationship. God created us because God couldn't be whole without being in relationship, without extending love to another. And if we're called to be like God, we need to extend love to our "others" too.

And the way we do that is, we feed the hungry. We don't let ourselves become greedy and harvest every scrap of food in the fields. We act justly toward those who work for us. We treat those who are Deaf, and those who are blind, with respect and admiration and compassion. We relate to one another fairly. Every night, maybe as we say the bedtime shema, we let go of our grudges and our anger with one another. That's how we love our neighbors: through doing all of those things. And that's how we make ourselves like God.

Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.