This week in parashat K'doshim, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, wonders: who is your neighbor? Can you love them even if they are not like you? If—and when—you do, can it change your life and even someone else’s?
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Welcome to episode 16 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. And as we tell you each week, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we really do want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism. And of course, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, in Parashat K’doshim, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wonders who is your neighbor? And can you love them even if they are not like you? And if and when you do, can it change your life, and maybe even someone else's?
This week, we focus on Parashat K’doshim. The word k’doshism means holy. The opening of the parashah, the opening of the portion says k’doshim tihiyu. It's plural. You shall be holy, in the plural. It doesn't say kadosh tiye. You, individually, shall be holy. Rashi, digging on a midrash says that it's a profound teaching that holiness, in our tradition, is found in community. It's created in community. It's created in that fabric of interrelationships and the ways in which ethical and moral and spiritual values really come to be in the give and take of everyday life in community.
There's a beautiful gem within this whole litany of laws that mirrors somewhat the Ten Commandments, but they've got additional pieces that the Ten Commandments doesn't message. For example, it says v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Now it's such a simple teaching. It's profound. We have the very famous version of it, told by Hillel, and Hillel and Shammai, the two sparring partners from early rabbinic Judaism, where a potential Jew by choice goes to Shammai and says, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” And Shammai gives him a clop over the head, and says, “Get outta here. We don't do that.” And he goes to Hillel, “Can you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot?” And Hillel says, “Absolutely. What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
So the way in which we understand these very simple words, v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. It hinges on who is your neighbor. Is your neighbor the people who are just like you, who think like you, dress like you, vote like you? Or is a neighbor a wider category? Those with whom you share a wider community, those with whom you share the world. The narrowness of that interpretation I think betrays the narrowness that is potential in religious life. That we care intensely only for our own. But this teaching, in the midst of this holiness code, is about stretching us beyond where we would go normally on our own. And so I believe it is teaching us to love those who are not like us, but love nonetheless.
There's an amazing amount of pain in the Middle East. And we know, almost daily, a new story of pain. But I share with you in the parashah of K’doshim a story-- a real life story that happened when someone really performed v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself. It was a tragic story of a young teenager, Yoni Jesner. He was from Scotland. And he was studying in Israel. And he was killed in a suicide bombing. They asked his family, would you like to donate his organs, that they might save others? And the family said, “Absolutely.” It turns out there was a young Palestinian girl from a family that received the kidney from Yoni Jesner. And Yoni's mother met the family. And they developed a friendship. And they understood something in Parashat K’doshim that I think few of us will ever understand. How somehow, we can actually love another, give life, give hope, and connect our fates to another.
And I don't know what's going to happen in your life this week, while you're listening to this podcast or in the rest of the week. And I think we always like to say oh yes, I observe at least the essence of all religious commandments. To love our neighbor as ourself. But how do we live a religious life? Is it through ritual? Is it through regular sacred study? Or is it in those rare moments, when we literally rise to a level of human behavior that truly moves us closer to the divine.
I know it doesn't happen to all of us all the time. It may happen to some of us only very rarely, but be inspired by the example of those who really know it, understood, and studied this verse from Parashat K’doshim. But because of their courage, because of their moral clarity, they brought more love and more mutual responsibility-- and therefore, more healing and more goodness into the world. K’doshim tihiyu. You shall be holy. How? By the way we relate to others. Those who are in our innermost circle, our family, our closest friends. But if it stops there, we don't create holiness in community. When it extends beyond those walls that sometimes keep us from the other, that's when we find that goodness. Later in the distinctive parashah. it tells us the beautiful teaching, v’hager hagar itchem, the stranger who resides with you, v’ahavta lo kamocha, you shall love that stranger, as you love yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It's the quintessential commandment. It takes love your neighbor and makes it an everyday obligation to see the stranger, and turn that stranger into a person with whom you share a very, very core commitment.
We have our work cut out for us this week, and every week. I wish you not only a week of joy, a week of discovery, a week of meaning, but also a week of reaching beyond that which is familiar so that we, in our lives, create kadosha, holiness.
Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.
On The Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.