Neighbors, strangers, and helpers
By Rabbi Judy Chessin, Temple Beth Or
At the center of the Torah, the very heart of the book of Leviticus, lies a fundamental teaching of Judaism: “Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18).”
Rabbi Akiva concluded that it is the major principle of the Torah (Palestinian Talmud Nedarim 9:4) and Christians call it the Golden Rule. As central as is this fundamental value, it is not without controversy especially in today’s polarized political atmosphere.
Who exactly is our neighbor? Do our neighbors include those of other races, religions, or nationalities? Are we to love, and therefore welcome refugees from contiguous countries, or all refugees from far and wide; only our friends, or our enemies alike?
While most agree that Leviticus 19:18 is a fundamental Divine command, there is little clarity as to what it actually means with regard to our personal, political or national interactions.
The verse, in context, is understood by many Jewish commentators, Hebrew linguists and interpreters as meaning exclusively our own people.
Since all verses surrounding the words refer to fellow Israelites, including “neighbor,” “people,” and “kin,” biblical scholar Marc Tzvi Brettler suggests “as yourself” might actually modify the word “neighbor” and not the word “love.” In other words, love those who are like yourself, namely your fellow kinspersons.
Yet, other scholars, including Richard Elliot Friedman, point out that the biblical word re’a in the Torah can refer not only to kinspersons but also to outsiders. Indeed, the very word is used for the Egyptian neighbors (re’im) whom the Israelites asked for gold and silver before fleeing slavery in Egypt.
And even if Leviticus 19:18 refers only to “brotherly love,” in its larger context the book continues with more lofty, inclusive ideals. Leviticus 19:34 reminds us likewise to love the ger or stranger (foreigner, alien) for we were ourselves were gerim or strangers in the land of Egypt.
How does this text inform our current political climate? On the one hand, we must show great compassion and do all we can for the oppressed of all nations.
As Rabbi Joachim Prinz stated at the March on Washington in 1963, “In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that, when God created man, He created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
And yet, biblically, loving the neighbor never extended to the mortal enemies of Israel. We are to blot out the name of Amalekites and defeat our foes. As Golda Meir reminded us, vigilance and self-defense are a necessary and unfortunate evil: “We owe responsibility not only to those who are in Israel but also to those generations who are no more, to those millions who have died within our lifetime, to Jews all over the world, and to generations of Jews to come. We hate war. We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown, and when strawberries bloom in Israel.”
In his brilliant essay, Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem suggests the messages of our spring holidays resound differently among Jews.
Purim reminds us of the eternal animus of Amalek (from whom the wicked Haman was descended) and his kind, those bent upon our destruction. Antisemitism is surely alive and well, and the Purim narrative speaks powerfully to us: “Don’t be naïve.”
Then comes Passover, reminding us that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, requiring us to have empathy for the disenfranchised, displaced and downtrodden in our world. Or as Halevi puts it, “Don’t be brutal.”
Each of us may resonate more toward one remembrance over the other: “Passover Jews” are more naturally motivated by empathy for the oppressed while “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat.
To be a Jew means to find a precarious balance between the two themes: safety versus compassion, vigilance versus generosity of spirit. It is the only realistic way to honor the aspirational commandment of loving our neighbor even as we love ourselves.
Wisdom may come from, of all places, the childhood television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
This wisdom might serve us well this season. Purim’s fear and outrage should not define us, even as Passover’s aspirational idealism should not lead us to naiveté.
In these challenging times, let us bolster and join with the many helpers — those of different faiths, nationalities, races and backgrounds — who share the values cherished by our community.
There are those among our neighbors who are coalescing to fight antisemitic attacks, religious bigotry, racial and gender injustice and national and worldwide terror. Let us join with them hand in hand and say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”