Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: How (Much) Do We Want To Live? Questions We Ask Now More Than Ever

2 Comments 03 May 2017

Our tradition teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves. In his commentary this week to Parashat Acharey Mot-Kedoshim, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom wonders if we can take on the full implications of such a deceptively simple commandment.

Memorial to victims of acts of Terror, Mt Herzl. By Deror avi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Memorial to victims of acts of Terror, Mt Herzl. By Deror avi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

There’s nothing like tragedy to shake us out of revelry, and wake us out of slumber. Such are the last three weeks with their alternating revelry and mourning: Passover, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Day), Yom Hazikron (Memorial Day) and Independence Day. Celebrate as much as we’d like, we can’t sidestep hard questions about life and death, thus there couldn’t be a more appropriate title for this Shabbat’s liturgical reading (Leviticus 16-18) than Aharey Mot, “following the death [of Aaron’s two sons].” Towards the end of this reading we are optimistically told that these are rules “to live by” – vahai bahem (18:5), so how is it that there’s so much avoidable death?

When it happened, the first deaths in the book a few chapters back (Leviticus 10), Moses thought the show must go on, but Aaron, the bereaved father, knew that it couldn’t, at least not immediately. Chapters 12-15, last week’s reading, provide a break in the narrative, and now we’re back in Chapter 16 with a technical solution for the resumption of the Temple ritual. We’re not told how this battered family is managing, but when the Priestly Code has God commanding Moses to, “Tell your brother Aaron not to come at will into the Shrine, lest he die,” we see the heightened awareness of the linkage of holiness and death. When the very next chapter extends these same lethal consequences to mundane acts of eating anywhere, we have to ask what is going on here? Are these really “rules to live by”? The prophet Ezekiel isn’t at all sure, because after he picks up the phrase and uses it three times in the space of eleven verses (Ezekiel 20:11,13,and 21) he then astonishingly – by biblical standards – turns against God, putting in His mouth perhaps the most enigmatic verse in the entire Bible, “I gave them laws that are not good, rules they could not live by,” but we’ve long since been wondering how and why holiness can be so lethal, and life so precarious.

This year’s liturgical calendar doubles up the Parashot this Shabbat, so we’re also reading Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20), which continues the harshness of Aharey Mot with a list of capital punishments in chapter 20 for the sexual transgressions brought in chapter 18, but preceded by a mix of ritual and moral commandments, one of which two of our greatest sages, Hillel and Akiva, declared to be the very essence of the Torah: Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18), and its extension, in verse 34, to love the stranger as yourself.

The contrast between this sublime demand and what could be seen as ritual terror recalls the metaphor of a diamond in the rough. In fact, Hillel phrased the Golden Rule in the negative: “That which is hateful unto you, do not do to your fellow man,” perhaps sensing that it might be too much to expect love outside of intimacy. Thus, when trying to open the eyes and hearts of the Israeli citizenry to the anguish of Palestinian families who have not received the remains of their relatives who died while attacking Israelis, it may be more effective to get them to remember what the Goldin and Shaul families, whose sons’ remains are held by Hamas, are going through.

But is “love your neighbor as yourself” relevant to this last example, or is the Christian New Testament going too far when it says:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

We realize it’s on to something when we notice that the full verse forbids taking revenge or even bearing a grudge. We’re left with a simple but seemingly impossible mission: Where can we find the spiritual energy to get past the natural desire to avenge the wrongs done to us? Bechor Shor, a medieval commentator answers this by noting that the verse ends with the statement, “I am the Lord”, which he applies in this context to mean, “Let your love for Me overcome your hatred for him, and in this way, love overcomes hatred.”

Do we want to live this much?

Jeremy MilgromRabbi Jeremy Milgrom is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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2 Comments so far

  1. Desmond Jagger-Parsons says:

    As is often the case, you remind me of the One who we follow. I love the closing direction to let our love for HIM be greater. No matter what side you’re on in conflict, it is so easy to lose yourself in it. Lose identity. Lose religion. Lose the power of love over your own life. In your reminder, I found a piece of freedom. Who knows? Maybe it will even last till morning!

    You continue to be this poor, struggling Christian’s Rabbi. Thank you.

  2. Wes Avram says:

    Thank you Jeremy.

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