Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Torah Reading for Week of April 18 – April 24, 2010

“Lessons of Love”

by Rabbi J.B. Sacks
AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

Love…We yearn for it. This week explores love through the famous maxim,v’ahav-ta l’rei-acha kamocha, “Love your ‘fellow’ as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) A closer examination reveals new insights.

First, this dictum comes in the middle of a chapter on holiness on a Shabbat calledK’doshim, “holy matters.” Thus, the heart of holiness is love. Holiness, the experiencing of the ordinary as extraordinary, applies potentially to every situation and action we might make. The chapter gives a remarkable variety of potential applications: the family, the workplace, the courts, interpersonal relationships no matter how in/formal, of long- or of no standing. Even our relationship to the earth is included. A holy moment, a holy encounter, can happen anywhere, any time, with anyone, but only within a heart imbued with and suffused with love. Holiness is love in action.

Second, our love extends not only to our fellow Jews, for the chapter’s end tells us regarding, in startlingly similar language the non-citizen, v’ahavta lo kamocha, “You shall love that one as yourself.” (19:34) A loving person extends love not just to those considered close, but to everyone. Indeed, the phrase “your fellow” suggests that the hope of encounter is that this “fellow,” this other, will become closer to you, will become “yours.” Moreover, in only these two places in the Hebrew Bible is the verb ahav, “love,” followed by a lamed, signifying “to.” This suggests that love cannot remain a feeling but must palpably move out “to” the other person.

The Torah knows how difficult this can be. The command to love concludes a brief pericope commanding us to not hate anyone in our heart (19:17-18). Since the Torah concerns action, the directive to not hate is a charge to do something with our feelings. The Torah guides us (v.18): When we feel negatively toward someone, we should not act out precipitously through vengeful speech or action. Nor should we bottle up our feelings or repress them. Rather, we should “reprove” that person, that is, find a respectful way and proper tone to share our feelings so that our love extends even while we call someone to account. Love is being real, and being really committed to the relationship, which includes the difficult discussions. That’s how love deepens us and our interactions—no matter where that relationship goes.

Third, the command comes in the singular, to ensure that each of us falls under its jurisdiction; no one can serve as our proxy. In any—and every—given moment, no matter how difficult, we can put forth the love we contain. The question is not one of finding but, rather, of giving love. Where will love be most needed? How do I love appropriately in this situation?

Our discussion suggests a fourth lesson. Loving another “as yourself” can now mean to love so that love flows between you and the other, so that the dynamic energy, love, streams to the other and back to ourselves somehow, sometime.

So, at the heart of the Torah we discover that love is a spiritual force enabling us to experience holiness. Assimilating this insight, Torah startles us, inspires us.

May we allow love to direct our hearts in all our encounters.
May our love be open to all.
When someone bothers us, may we check ourselves and initiate holy conversation with them.
May we take time to tap into the love within our hearts before engaging anyone and everyone.
May our love enable us to experience more holiness.
And may love animate us more thoroughly, until love abounds in this realm and better reflects the realm of the One Who Is Love.

Amen.

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