Acharei Mot for Tweens

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

The heart of Sefer Va-Yikra, and therefore, the heart of Torah, is devoted to k'dushah-separateness, otherness, and holiness. Parashat AchareiMot describes ancient observance of Yom Kippur with modern echoes as well as rituals concerning the eating of meat. Parashat K'doshim contains practical, interpersonal applications of holiness.

In the fifth aliyah of this week's double portion, the idea of holiness is literally fleshed out, i.e., given concrete meaning. We have opportunities every day to bring holiness to life.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal. (Leviticus 19:18)

Two thousand years ago, when a challenger told Hillel that they would convert to Judaism if Hlllel could teach them the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel answered, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it." (Shabbat 31a) Clearly, empathy for others is at the center of Jewish ethics.

While this idea is core, it does not stand alone. As Hillel instructs, we must learn the commentary. Hillel changed the Torah text from the positive statement to love one's fellow to the negative statement not to do what is hateful to one's neighbor. How can one be commanded to love? How does one love one's self? Considering the second part of the verse, I am the Eternal, how does a belief in God affect how we understand and fulfill this mitzvah?

In his interpretation, Maimonides outlines specific mitzvot that constitute loving another: visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, joining a funeral procession, celebrating with bride and groom, hospitality, caring for the dead and giving a eulogy. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Evel 14:1) Nachmanides counters Maimonides' focus on behaviors and teaches instead that that the mitzvah to love is not about actions, but rather about sentiments; we should wish the best for our neighbors, just as we would wish for ourselves. (A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 2, 135-136) This argument goes to the core of an enduring conundrum, i.e., is it behaviors or feelings that determine a person's character?

Our text also teaches us that love for another and love for one's self are interdependent. A bully will not change their behavior when asked, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" because they are acting out of a need for recognition and respect. The bully is not content with themself and takes that out on others. The bully is not content with him or herself and takes that out on others. Dr. Becky Bailey teaches about how love for self and love for others are connected and can reinforce one another: "Self-esteem does not come from how others see you, but from how you see others. Thus we can see the power of the Golden Rule. It is golden because it affects both parties. See the beauty in others, and you can see the beauty in yourself." (I Love You Rituals, 6)

Actually, this principle informs many of the world's great religious teachings. The Christian bible teaches, "Always treat others as you would like them to treat you." (Matthew 7:12) In about 500 B.C.E., Confucius is attributed to saying, "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." (Confucius Canon: Analects 15:23) Similarly, the ancient Sanskrit epics of Hinduism (dating unsure between 1500-500 B.C.E.) state, "This is the sum of all duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." (Mahabharata 5:1517) The parallels that we find in history to what Rabbi Akiva argued is the most important mitzvah in the Torah offer hope that this moral ideal possesses well nigh universal appeal. It is instructive to note, as Jakob Petuchowski taught in Ever Since Sinai, the word Torah applies to a teaching as well as to all teaching. In this one torah, Love your fellow as yourself is the whole Torah. Behind Leviticus 19 stands the whole of Jewish teaching. The challenge Hillel placed before the prospective proselyte remains before each one of us. We know in theory how we are to treat other people in relationship to ourselves and God. All we have left to do is translate that theory into practice-all day, every day.

Table talk

  1. What do you think this mitzvah means? In what ways do you strive to fulfill it? Do you prefer the positive "Love your fellow as yourself" or negative "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor" formulation? Why?
  2. Who is your fellow? Does how you define this term change how you understand the commandment to love them?
  3. What activities and policies exist in your synagogue, schools, workplace and communities that are based on the principle of loving your fellow?

For further learning

Try this technique for fulfilling this mitzvah. First, think of something that makes you feel great. What is something you do to treat yourself? Make a list of a few things. Your list might include a massage, watching or playing sports, eating at a nice restaurant, going to the beach, going fishing, reading or listening to music. Then choose one that you think someone else might also enjoy and give it to someone you know. For an added bonus, invite the person to do the activity with you!

Reference Materials

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1–18:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858–888; Revised Edition, pp. 769–794; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 679–700