Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, in Baltimore and Beyond
The wisdom of Torah is applicable in all times and places. Especially during these tense days in the life of Baltimore, the city where I live and serve as a rabbi, the lessons of Torah help us understand what we must do.
Last Shabbat, we read Parashah Kedoshim in the Book of Leviticus, the physical and theological center of the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, a document written primarily for priestly consumption, is concerned with distinctions. God likes orderliness. God does not want us to wear clothing of mixed fabric, to plow a field using diverse animals, or sow a field with mixed seed. God tells the priests to distinguish between the pure and impure, the priests and lay persons, the holy and ordinary, Israel and the nations. Yet, in the midst of these laws demanding distinction, we read Leviticus 19, the zenith of which is the verse “V’ahavta l’re’acha ka’mocha,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God commands us to love not only our fellow Jews but all human beings.
The rabbis acknowledge that it is difficult to understand this law. When asked to summarize the entire Torah, Rabbi Hillel said, “What is distasteful to you, do not do to another person. The rest is commentary; now go and study.”
I interpret this admonition in a positive sense: “Want for your neighbor what you want for yourself.” That seems to be easier to understand and simpler to achieve. We all want safety, security, good health, decent housing, and productive and meaningful work. We want our children to have a good education and a chance to reach their potential. We want to live in a community that helps us achieve these reasonable goals.
It has been a very dark two weeks in the life of our city. Baltimore has been roiling from violence and injustice. Freddie Gray, who was apparently healthy when arrested by Baltimore police, suffered mortal injuries during arrest and transport to the Western District Police Station. Legitimate peaceful protests demanding justice morphed last Monday to illegitimate and egregious violence. Youthful rioters set fires to buildings and destroyed businesses in their own community. Police were injured, and the National Guard was called in to restore order. A curfew was imposed. Business is suffering, and ordinary life has been curtailed.
Two weeks ago, I attended an emergency BUILD clergy meeting at a church in West Baltimore. We asked the residents of Sandtown what they wanted. We heard from them that they want the same things we want for ourselves and our children. The residents of Sandtown told us they want more police on the streets to drive away the drug dealers in the neighborhood. They want a relationship with the leadership of the Western District but have repeatedly been put off by “acting” majors, for there has not been a permanent commander in the Western District for the last two years. The police leadership, including Commissioner Anthony Batts, have refused to meet with them. I ask: How can we know what our neighbors want when we will not meet with them and listen to their concerns?
On Wednesday, I attended a BUILD action at City Hall. More than 150 of us went to the Board of Estimate to request that the president of the city council and police commissioner meet with the residents of Sandtown (the mayor, who has not met with neighborhood residents, will not meet with BUILD, the only multi-religious, multi-racial community organization in our city). Council President Jack Young, who knew in advance we were coming and what we were requesting, reluctantly agreed to meet with us. We then marched to police headquarters, where we were able to schedule a meeting with Commissioner Batts for this week.
All of life is about relationships. We cannot love our neighbors unless we listen to them. What do they want? What do they need? If we want to fulfill the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we must enter into relationship with our neighbors.
We call upon the political leadership of our city and state to meet with West Side residents and truly listen to them. There are endemic issues on the West Side and in other neighborhoods in Baltimore that have existed for generations and have only compounded in the last 30 years with the epidemic of drugs and the loss of manufacturing jobs.
As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirke Avot (2:16), “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it entirely…” The task of listening and learning to love can never be completed. It is, however, our sacred obligation to begin.