This week’s Torah reading consists of two parshas: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim. These texts record the last of the laws relating to the sacrificial rite and then the focus returns to the special social and cultural weal that God expected the Israelites to abide. To truly sanctify God’s name, the Israelites were required to engage in socially beneficial conduct and live their lives in a very moral manner. As with the template used in the Ten Commandments, they were not so much required to do as much as they were obligated to refrain from doing. Two general principles emerge from the text,
The first, which is recorded in Acharei Mot, can be reduced to one guiding statement: “Do not perform the practice of the land of Egyptian which you dwelled; and do not perform the practice of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions”. While it appears that this exhortation is qualified by the specific teaching that follow, the adjuration is open to a far wider meaning. In its extreme, it mandates that a fence be erected separating, or protecting, Jews from others, or more specifically, from the culture and practices of others. The phrase and the concept it appears to define, has become the wellspring of the Weltanschauung followed by the adherents of one of Judaism’s newer sects, the ultra orthodox, or as they refer to themselves, the chareidim, who religiously reject all aspects of culture and learning that finds it source outside the four corners of the Torah.
The second principle is recorded in Parsha Kedoshim, which proclaims a variety of laws directed at an assorted array of human activities. For the most part, these regulations are intended to balance the natural inequalities that arise in the social fabric and are designed to afford the vulnerable with protection and assistance.
The Israelites were commanded not to lie, cheat or steal, defraud and deceive. They were not to take vengeance nor bear a grudge, inclinations which generally lead to suffering and further ill will. In short, they were to treat their fellow men, how they themselves would expect to be treated: “you shall love thy neighbour as thyself” or as phrased by Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. Hillel thought that to be the most important of the principle found in the Torah: “this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary”.
This principle is often referred to as the Golden Rule, and an expression of it is found in the ethos of many cultures, religions and civilizations. However, the phrasing so artfully articulated by Hillel, is of a much different import. For example, in Christianity, the Golden Rule is stated thusly: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The change is subtle but the meaning is not. Simply, the Torah asks only that you refrain from violating the rights of others, not that you have an obligation to others; your first obligation is to oneself: “if I am not for myself, who will be for me”?
Benevolence towards others is not ignored by the Torah; in fact charity and acts of kindness are one of the three pillars upon which the faith rests. Indeed there are numerous provisions which are intended to assist the vulnerable and disadvantaged. For example: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of thy harvest. You shall not pick your vineyards bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger”. Importantly, generosity and human kindness are not matters of choice. Neither are they private prerogatives nor subjective decisions. Simply, they are moral duties that are demands made by the Law.