While on vacation this past week, I listened to the unfolding news-both of the effects of the earthquake in Nepal and the unrest in Baltimore-with great anguish and sadness.
The devastation in Nepal is heartbreaking; it is so hard to be so far away and not to be able to do anything other than send money-which of course is much needed. I’ve sent off my own donation and hope that you might send one as well. Here is a link to a site suggesting different organizations to which you can give: http://www.bbb.org/council/news-events/news-releases/2015/04/nepal-earthquake-donation-tips/; or check on Give.org. If you know of others that you prefer, please share them with me so that I can pass them on to others. Any amount, of course, is helpful; it all adds up.
The circumstances in Baltimore are also heartbreaking: the life of another young African American man tragically and needlessly lost, and-as Maryland’s attorney announced this morning-perhaps through police misconduct and negligence. The violence and protests that raged this week are the expression of moral outrage spilling over; while violent reactions are ultimately not productive, they are, in some ways, I believe, understandable: the reaction to decades, centuries, of injustice toward those who, simply as a result of fate and circumstance, were born with darker skin.
In this situation too, it is hard to be so far away. And yet here, we can do something. We can raise our voices and call for justice, not only in Baltimore, but here in Seattle and throughout the country, indeed the world. We can draw on the teachings of our Jewish Tradition to reaffirm what we know to be true: that all people are created in G-d’s image, B’tzelem Elohim, and deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and equal rights.
In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei-Mot Kedoshim, we read one of the most quoted mitzvot (sacred obligations) in the whole of the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18). Many throughout history have wrestled with what this verse means. Can we really be commanded to love others?
A well-known story is told of a person, someone not Jewish, who came to Rabbi Hillel, and said, “I will convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; now go and learn it” (Shabbat 31a).
Rabbi Hillel’s student, Rabbi Akiba, believed that the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” was the greatest principle of the whole Torah. But his colleague, Rabbi ben Azzai, disagreed. Ben Azzai said that the teaching “G-d created the human in the likeness of G-d” (B’tzelem Elohim) (Gen. 5:1) was an even more important principle. Why? Ben Azzai argued that people must not use their own feelings or attitudes as a basis for deciding how to treat others. “You should not say,” ben Azzai explains, ‘since I am hated, let my neighbor be similarly hated, or, since I am in trouble, let my neighbor be similarly in trouble.’ Rather, you should remember that both you and your neighbor were created in the likeness of G-d.” In other words, we must treat others with respect and love, not because we like them and feel akin to them, but simply because they, like us, were created in G-d’s image and likeness-as a manifestation of the Holy One in each and every individual (Genesis Rabbah 24).
Let me offer one final interpretation of this verse, one that is particularly relevant to the circumstances today. Rabbi Meir Lev ben Yechiel Michael, also known as Malbim, said that people should not just wish for their neighbor what they want for themselves, namely “advantage and protection from harm.” Rather, they should endeavor to do everything that is to the advantage of their neighbor, and should not do anything that might cause him or her harm. If they are prepared to harm their neighbor, they should ask whether this kind of conduct might become a universal rule. “Do I want to live in a world where everyone is free to do what I am about to do?” each person should ask.
Friends, we are all responsible for helping to create the kind of world in which we want to live. I hope that we can draw on our tradition to guide us, as together we work to create a world that is more just for all people-regardless of their skin color, their religious or political beliefs, their sexual identity, their ethnic background, their class, and more. May we be an example to others. May it be so.