Parashat Kedoshim is close to the physical center of the Torah. It begins with the instruction: You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.
At close to the center of the law code which follows, we find the iconic words: V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the Torah’s formulation of the Golden Rule, the core principle that lies at the heart of most religions and ethical systems.
But this apparently simple expression is deceptively complex. To understand it, I invite us to look at it in context.
V’ahavta L’re’acha Kamocha appears in Leviticus chapter 19:18. It is only part of the verse, and it follows 19:17, which provides additional context and helps us understand what it is that God is asking of us.
So let’s look at those two verses in their entirety:
You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.Leviticus 19:17-18
Several details jump out right away. The first verse speaks of hate while the second speaks of love. Ramban notes that these verses are set up in a chiastic format. ABBA
“Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart” vs. “Love your fellow as yourself.”
“Reprove your fellow openly” vs. “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.”
Plus, the “Thou Shalt” and the “Thou Shalt Not” are reversed. Verse 17 says don’t hate but do reprove while verse 18 reverses it, don’t take revenge, but do love.
In each case, the emotional instruction adds something to the more practical part of the commandment. But don’t think that hate and love are mere emotions. In the Torah, they are actions. When the Shema tells us to love the Lord your God, it is telling us to express our covenental obligations of love through actions. Inversely, hatred in the hatred implies a sense of active plotting against another person. We need to keep this important detail in mind as we explore further.
Let’s start with verse 17. Reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him. That sounds like a dangerous proposition. I see my fellow commiting a sin and the Torah tells me that I must rebuke him. I have to try to stop whatever sinful activities that are being committed.
This commandment suggests that we have responsibilities towards the other members of our community. Like it or not, the impacts of many of my decisions and actions will reverberate to the people around me. The Torah is saying that my neighbors do not have to sit idly by and watch me bring disaster on to the community. In fact, they are not allowed to sit idly by. This positive commandment instructs other people to intervene on my behavior.
Of course, the potential for abuse is obvious. I try to always keep in mind the advice that my late father-in-law, Gary Romalis, may he rest in peace, used to offer, “Unsolicited advice is never appreciated.”
But if I trust my friends and neighbors, and know that they want what is best for me, I might be open to being reprimanded when I am behaving like a selfish jerk. I might appreciate the correction.
I think the Torah might be aware of this as well, as it offers a qualifier. “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”
Jacob Milgrom explains that the emphatic doubling of the verb, hokheach tokhiach, implies that reproof must be done openly. This reading helps us understand the commandment to “not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.” Hatred stored up in the heart has the tendency to fester. It is better to get it out in the open.
This is a theme that appears many times in the Bible. “Open reproof is better than concealed love,” states Proverbs (27:5). Proverbs also recognizes that it takes wisdom to receive rebuke. “Do not reprove a scoffer, for he will hate you, reprove a wise man and he will love you.” (9:8)
Taken together, we find themes of love and hate bound up with the notion of commenting on the behavior of friends, family members, and neighbors. Reproof must be motivated by love, and never hatred. And it can only be heard by someone who is open to receiving it.
The community that lived in Qumran, as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, was an extremely tight-knit brotherhood. Strict rules governed daily life. Members of the community were required to reprove one another openly. Listen to what one of their documents states:
…if he kept silent about him from day to day, and accused him of a capital offense (only) when he was angry with him, [the accused’s] punishment is upon [the accuser], since he did not fulfill the commandment of God who said to him, “reprove your fellow openly so that you will not bear punishment because of him.”Damascus Covenant Scroll 9: 2-8
A brother had to bring everything out into the open. Keeping things bottled up would allow hatred to grow. Another Qumran document provides guidance for how to offer rebuke:
To reprove each his fellow in truth, humility, and lovingkindness to a man: Let him not speak to him in anger or complaint or stub[bornly or in passion] (caused) by an evil disposition. Let him not hate him intrac[tab]ly, for on that very day shall he reprove him so that he will not bear punishment because of him.1QS 5:25-6:1
Rebuke must be loving and humble.
The next verse in the Torah continues the theme.
You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people.
It is so easy to judge other people’s actions. We jump to conclusions all the time, and before we know it, we are consumed. The Torah warns us against it. The Talmud (BT Yoma 23a) offers a simple example that illustrates the difference between taking revenge and bearing a grudge. I am paraphrasing.
Let’s say I ask my neighbor to borrow a hammer. My neighbor says, “No way, it’s mine.” The next day, my neighbor comes knocking on my door, “Hey Josh, can I borrow a shovel.”
“Are you kidding me?! You wouldn’t lend me your hammer yesterday, and now you want my shovel. Get lost!”
That, says the Talmud, is revenge.
Let’s say, after my neighbor refuses to lend me the hammer and then has the audacity to ask for my shovel, I instead say, “Here. Take it. You see, unlike you, I am not selfish and greedy. I am the kind of person who lends out his tools.”
That is what it means to bear a grudge.
Both of these examples are the kind of typical reactions that, I imagine, most of us would have. That is why the Torah instructs us to “love your fellow as yourself.”
Even though my neighbor wouldn’t lend me the hammer, I cannot let myself succumb to hate. What does it feel like to need a shovel when you don’t have one? It does not matter that my neighbor was greedy yesterday. When someone needs a shovel, my job is to lend it to them. Because I know what it is like to need a tool.
The Talmud’s example, of course, is a bit trite. There are much more serious offenses that impose barriers between people. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to imagine that we should not feel hatred in our hearts against someone who has really wronged us.
It is perhaps easier to imagine such common trust and acceptance in a small village in which everyone knows everyone, or a tight-new Qumranic brotherhood in the desert. A complex, diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and highly interconnected world simply does not foster the level of trust and acceptance of one another that the Torah imagines.
How often do we pass judgment on other people’s actions, allow hate to fester, hold grudges, bear resentment?
Yet, this is the central command of the Torah, the ethical principle upon which all of Judaism is based, the underpinnings of holiness.
We are not to be passive to wrongdoing, hokheach tokiach, You shall openly rebuke. But our rebuke must never be driven by hatred, must always be motivated by love for one another. How do we do this?
The Baal Shem Tov inspringly brings it together.
Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so should we love our fellows despite the faults we see in them.Telushkin 1997: 466
May we have the honesty and acceptance to do so.
Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible: Leviticus 17-22, pp. 1646-1656