“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am HaShem”
Iyar 7, 5780/May 1, 2020
This week’s double Torah reading of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim is a tour de force, beginning with a detailed description of the first Yom Kippur ever observed – “Acharei Mot – After the death of Aharon’s two sons [Nadav and Avihu], when they drew near before HaShem, and they died.” (Leviticus 16:1)
Following the Torah’s account of the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, Israel is instructed to “fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes, to follow them. I am HaShem, your G-d. You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am HaShem.” (ibid 18:4-5)
Two truths are contained in this statement, which will be repeated many times throughout the remainder of the parasha: the Torah commandments are the guiding lights which connect us to the source of life. We live by them. And secondly, the proclamation “I am HaShem” is stated not merely as a fact, but as an imperative.
Because “I am HaShem,” Israel is called upon to perform the commandments being presented. There is a certain logic to this if the commandment being discussed is what is known is Hebrew as a chok – that is, an ordinance issued by G-d, such as the dietary laws of kashrut, or the observance of Shabbat. These are both examples of commandments that shape our relationship with G-d.
But the vast majority of the commandments being presented in the second half of this week’s Torah reading, “Kedoshim – You shall be holy, for I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy” (ibid 19:1) have to do with how we treat one another, societal laws, rules of social justice. What does being holy have to do with “You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning?” (ibid 19:13)
What does the crucial truth “I am HaShem” have to do with “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your G-d. I am HaShem.” (ibid 19:14) Isn’t this normative human behavior? Where does G-d or being holy figure into being thoughtful of one another. It’s human!
But the greatest expression of this conundrum appears four verses later: “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am HaShem.” This apparent conundrum is also the secret which reveals the entire message of the book of Leviticus! Love your neighbor as yourself! How do we love ourselves? And why do we love ourselves? And how do we love others? This is not a commandment which instructs us how to perform a tangible act, such as how to prepare the food we eat, how to observe Passover or how to perform an offering in the Holy Temple. Love your neighbor as yourself is every bit as intangible as G-d Himself!
The book of Leviticus opened with these words: “And He called to Moshe.” We recall that, although unnamed, the He is this verse is G-d. We also recall that Moshe was standing before the Tent of Meeting. And finally, we recall that Torah never reveals just what HaShem said to Moshe. It was a private message, meant only for Moshe’s ears. If so, why then, does Torah share this information with us? Why the mystery?
The book of “Vayikra – And He called,” (Leviticus), is teaching is that we all stand before G-d, and that G-d has a message for each and every one of us – a message meant for our ears alone. That makes each one of us a partner with G-d, sharing a unique truth with G-d, and expressing, simply by being alive, a unique facet of G-d’s Being. We are all, in an infinitesimally minuscule but magnificently extraordinary way, embodiments of a silent roar heard throughout creation, literally sparks of G-d, Himself!
“Kedoshim – You shall be holy, for I, HaShem, your G-d, am holy” – is nothing less than a statement of fact. But it is up to us to aspire to this exalted designation in every thing we do. We are holy by G-d’s decree, but we need to choose to express and reveal this holiness in all we do. “you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am HaShem.” I am HaShem is reminding us that we have all stood before Him and received our own private instruction for life.
How can I not love myself when I have been personally blessed by G-d’s concern for me? How can I not love myself when G-d has entrusted me to share in caring for His creation? And how can I not love my fellow man when they too have been addressed, blessed and entrusted by G-d to play their part in perfecting creation? And what is the secret to perfecting G-d’s creation? “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am HaShem.”
It’s human to love one another. It’s human to love one’s self. This is because G-d created us in His image. And now, in the book of Leviticus, which is the book of G-d assuming His place amidst His creation, G-d is calling upon His children to step up to the plate and fully realize what it is to be created in G-d’s image.
To love your neighbor as yourself is, at once, the most human and the most G-dly expression of who we are and who we are meant to be. It is the reason for our being. And ultimately, it is an expression of our love for G-d. G-d whispered a secret into all our ears. Let’s share that secret! Let’s love one another as we love ourselves!