This week’s reading is the most significant in all the Torah for those who want to see Judaism as an ethical system. Here are some of the ethical laws we will read
Don’t steal, deceive or lie. Don’t oppress or rob your neighbor. Don’t delay paying your worker’s wages. Consider the needs of the poor. Don’t curse a deaf person or put an obstacle in the way of the blind. Don’t hate your neighbor in your heart. Don’t take vengeance or bear grudges. In justice favor neither the poor nor the rich but follow the law. Love your neighbor as you would yourself. Do not tell tales about people or stand by when someone else is in danger. Do not go around telling tales.
I think we would all agree that these are good moral teachings and we should abide by them. Most of us consider them more important than the ritual laws and customs and yet the fact is that those who ignore one often tend to ignore the other. Many of us fail to live up to these laws. We hear every day of examples of people not going to help others. And I am sure that most of us indulge in gossip to some extent every day.
People often say that being a good person is more important than being a religious person. And that is true. The Law itself says that one can postpone religious observance to help another human being in distress or need. But in reality, they are two different standards of being. A Jew who follows some of the Torah but say neglects others relating to other human beings is not a good person. And if he or she is not a good person they cannot be a good Jew.
But conversely a good person who refuses to keep Jewish laws cannot be a good Jew even if he is a good human being. We need both. That is why the Torah interrelates actions between humans and God and actions between humans and humans. The ideal is to have both.
Chapter 19 of Leviticus, is in some ways the most important chapter of the Torah because it contains a concentration of what we would call ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ laws. We accept the authority of God ‘Beyn Adam LaMakom’ (Human to God) to direct our behavior so that we will be better humans and more considerate of others ‘Beyn Adam LeChavero’ (human to human). It is only because we also concentrate on behavior, on a life that is regulated and structured, that we often think of ritual laws matter more than ethical ones. That does not mean they are more important. They are equal partners. It is all very well having high sounding moral aims, but if they are not put into practice they are just hot air. To say you are charitable and to actually give to charity are two very different things.
It is in this chapter that we have the famous ‘Love Your Neighbor as Yourself’. Actually, the translation is inaccurate. It really translates ‘(Show) love to your neighbor because (he or she is the same) as you.’ The principle is that we should put ourselves in other people’s shoes to know what their pain or needs feel like. So many think that this idea comes from Christianity, but here it is in the Torah, more than a thousand years earlier. It was so important that when the great Hillel was asked he said the whole of the Torah comes down to this principle, ‘What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor’ (Talmud Shabbat 31a). Still, he went on to say that the other ritual commands are necessary to constantly remind us that theory is not good enough.