Who doesn’t know the golden rule – a precept that is synonymous with all that is Jewish and an axiom for social justice? It is an idea that has elevated mankind from a survival of the fittest mentality. In order to fully realize the American dream of equality, this doctrine must be implemented in our daily lives.
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, the famous Chasidic rabbi, explains the commandment to love your fellow man by stating:
I never knew what love was until I overheard two people having a conversation.
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, I love you very much.”
“Really! Do you know what I am lacking?”
“How would I know that?”
“If you don’t know what I am lacking, how could you possibly think you love me?”
For the past few day I have watched the unfolding of events in Baltimore with great concern. I am ill equipped to take sides, nor am I capable of excusing behaviors that are unconscionable and irresponsible regardless of the perpetrators. Whether protestors are looting or setting buildings ablaze, or police are being injured, there is no excuse for the lack of regard for humanity. How is it possible to justify hurting one’s fellow man? How can it be so easy to cast aside years of political successes for fleeting and impulsive fits of vengeful recklessness?
My gut reaction is to condemn the rioters and question their lack of civility. Yet after perusing the 613 commandments, I find none that mandates following your gut. Thus I shift my focus from the emotional and seek moral guidance from the Torah. I read the words of the Rebbe of Sassov and ask myself: Do I really love my fellow man? Do I even know what he lacks? Do I comprehend his predicament or am I using my own cultural, racial, and socioeconomic measuring stick to judge the rioters?
As a Jew, I know I should be more sensitive to the plight of black Americans, and yet I find it difficult to understand. I see that I follow the path of least resistance and ignore their ire and rage. Tinged with stereotypical ignorance, I am unable to share their anguish as it fails to resonate with my Jewish values and background. I understand that poverty, racial inequality, and discrimination are rampant, but I somehow manage to blindly ignore their plight. I know that police brutality and social injustices are an epidemic, but I easily dismiss its negative impact on hopes and future aspirations. I have heightened sensitivity for even the slightest trace of anti-Semitism, yet sadly I have tunnel vision when the Jew is not the victim. I need to protect my people from the venomous diatribes of hate, and yet I fail to recognize that Jews are not the only target. I should be able to shift gears and understand the plight of others, but I am immersed in the waters of self-pity and fail to take a broader perspective.
With these thoughts in my mind, I challenged myself to use the Torah as my guide. I read this week’s Torah portion and it gave me a keener insight of what it means to be Torah observant. The words dance off the page expressing insights into events happening today.
Verse 2. You should be holy. You should act in ways that foster holiness. According to Ramban – Nachmanides, the commandment is to act in a manner that goes beyond legal duty. He maintains that to be holy one cannot be a naval birshut haTorah– repulsive, yet not violating anything specific. Racism may not be a criminal offense, but it would be biblically prohibitive due to lack of holiness.
Verse 10. Leave a section of your vineyard and fields to the less fortunate. In other words, in the midst of your need to make a living, be cognizant of those less fortunate.
Verse 13. Don’t withhold payment of day laborers or pay them late. Realize that oppression is not only physical hurt or corporal punishment. It can also manifest itself by using one’s position of authority to render the meek more submissive and compliant.
Verse 16. Don’t stand by idly while your fellow’s blood is being shed. In other words, if you see an injustice, one is biblically mandated to stand up against the oppressor.
Verse 17. Don’t hate your fellow man. It is never justified to become incensed to the point of losing your cool. If someone truly did something wrong, you are permitted to correct them. That does not justify internalizing the wrong and causing it to develop into hatred and animosity.
Verse 17. Don’t bear sin because of the manner of reproof. In other words, one wrong doesn’t make a right. Just because you see an injustice, your own wrongdoing is not justified. Although the victim may have committed a crime that does not give the authorities permission take matters into their own hands.
Verse 18. Don’t take revenge; Love your fellow man. Instead of trying to punish and denigrate your enemy, a more constructive and positive attitude may lead to your enemy becoming your friend.
The commandment to be holy incorporates the realization that refraining from wrongdoing is not the same as doing something positive that will energize your soul. To be holy requires more than inactive passivity; it requires a mindset of proactivity. Yet being holy also requires one to understand a more global perspective of humanity. To realize that the less fortunate are not any less than you, they are merely lacking the foundation that we take for granted. Our objective and purpose as a Jew is to raise the bar and ensure that no one is treated unfairly and to comprehend the life of every individual as equally sacred.
The apex of our personal spiritual ascension is to love our fellow man and to see them as we see ourselves. We should be oblivious of their faults as we are oblivious to our own. We are asked to love others with an intensity that allows us to disregard our “gut” as inconsequential. In all sincerity, I still find it difficult to understand the motivation behind the acts of violence, but I am nevertheless tasked with a responsibility to be holy. A holiness that perhaps may only be attained by first unconditionally loving my fellow human being.
Of course it is far easier to proclaim the importance of the golden rule than to actually live by it.
Rabbi Jack Engel