Kedoshim-Acharei Mot: How to Start Loving Your Neighbor

The “Golden Rule” isn’t in the Torah.  Hillel the Elder’s (110 BCE – 10 CE) great statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; go and learn it” is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.  

Yet, Hillel’s advice may be the most pragmatic application we have of the famous maxim that is in the Torah (in this week’s Parashah): “Love your Neighbor as Yourself.”  [Leviticus 19:18). 

Hillel surely added “The rest is commentary, now go and study” to “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” because what constitutes proper conduct can’t be up to each individual to decide.  (E.g., It’s not okay for a racist to make racial epithets because they don’t bother her!).   

Also, unfortunately, we don’t necessarily know how to treat people in life’s often-complicated circumstances (both theirs and ours).  Proper conduct must be learned  over a lifetime.  Fortunately, Judaism provides a vast body of wisdom and guidance regarding interpersonal behavior.

But for many reasons, most of us will never methodically study that body of knowledge.   We are like the man to whom Hillel responded, who wishes to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  We might ask “Teach me, in one tweet or text message, how to ‘love my neighbor as myself.’”

Here is a suggestion:  “Give others the benefit of the doubt.”   

If we just do this, we’re much less likely to unfairly fault others, resent them, gossip about them, shun them, insult them, or otherwise treat them as we would surely not wish to be treated.  We would like to be given the benefit of the doubt, and therefore we should give it to others.   

This doesn’t mean being naïve.  If a person has demonstrated that they are untrustworthy or otherwise habitually misbehave, giving them the benefit of the doubt is foolish.  Nor should we ever fail to take reasonably prudent precautions.  But much more often, we judge people inconsiderate, selfish, ignorant, misguided, etc. when there is actually a very good reason for their actions (or inactions) that we do not, and may well never, know.

The following illustrative story appears in Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum’s Peninim on the Torah (2013)

In one of the kollelim (communities) of Bnei Brak (a city east of Tel Aviv), the daughter of one of the families became engaged to a very nice young man from a fine – but poor – family.  Considering the fact that the girl’s parents had limited resources and the boy’s parents had limited resources, the members of this man’s shul (synagogue) decided to make a lekitah, collection to assist with the wedding expense.  The kollel fellow was well-liked and respected, so the people gave generously for the cause.  The members of the shul raised a hefty sum, and they handed a check for the full amount to the father of the kallah (bride) with best wishes for mazel tov (congratulations) and much nachas (happiness).

All went well until the invitations arrived.  The invited guests noted that the wedding was to take place in the most expensive banquet hall in the area.  People were shocked.  How could this “poor” kallah have the audacity to accept charity from good people and pay them back by making the wedding in such a fancy hall?  It just did not make sense.  

The kollel fellow suspected that people were “talking,” so he approached his rav (rabbi) and asked to be heard.  “Rebbe, please do not think that I conceded to have my daughter’s wedding held in that hall of my own volition.  I did it to make someone feel good, to assuage his conscience.  Shortly before I was about to ‘close’ on the less expensive hall, I received a call from the owner of the more expensive hall.  He asked me, “Are you so and so’s son?”  I replied that I was.  “Then I have something very important to share with you,” he said.

“He began the conversation by weeping bitterly.  After a few moments, he composed himself and began his story” ‘My father owned and administered the hall until about a year ago.  Last week, shortly before he passed away, he called me to his bedside and told me about a Jew who had saved his life from certain death during the Holocaust.  This Jew even went so far as to put his own life in imminent danger.  My father had never discovered the last name of his savior.  He knew only his first name and village in Poland from where he hailed.  Throughout the years, my father had made every attempt to locate him, to return the favor, to no avail.  I promised my father on his deathbed that I would continue the search. 

‘While we were sitting Shiva, the seven-day mourning period, one of the visitors mentioned that he had been born and raised in the same village from where my father’s benefactor had originated.  I asked him if he knew that person, and he answered in the affirmative.  The person who saved my father’s life was none other than your father!  I now want to honor my father’s deathbed request.  Please allow me to cater your daughter’s wedding at my hall free of charge.  It is the least I can do to honor my father’s memory!’ 

Rabbi Scheinbaum comments that people should have realized that the more something doesn’t make sense, the greater the reason to believe that there is an adequate explanation.  This is an excellent adage that should give us pause before criticizing, or even thinking ill of, anyone when we lack “all the facts.”

To “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” start by giving him or her the benefit of the doubt!

Shabbat shalom.

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If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists.
Jewish Proverb