Friday, April 27, 2007

Where's the Jewish Violence?

There is a question that has been troubling many Americans of late, but it is particularly perplexing to us Jews. Our government’s efforts at rebuilding Iraq and instating a democracy have been stymied by horrific violence. That violence is directed at occupying troops is to be expected, but instead we have a civil war on our hands. Extremist Sunni and Shia Arabs who have lived side by side for years are now killing each other with abandon. With bombs and guns the murders are happening anywhere and everywhere, from private homes and mosques to the cafes, markets and even playgrounds. Ancient rivalries and religious differences have created a cycle of murder and revenge with no end in sight. This is the state of affairs today in Iraq.

The question is this: Yes, Shia and Sunni disagree over the line of succession from Mohammad and they disagree on certain issues of tradition and faith, but despite their differences, they have a lot in common. Both groups are religious, Islamic and believe that Mohammad was a prophet of G-d. Compared to the religious differences within the Jewish community, the distinctions between Shia and Sunni pale in comparison. But yet, the Jews get along quite well, beli ayin hara, while Muslim extremists are killing each other. Why the difference? What is the secret that keeps the peace among the Jews? The answer is to be found in this week’s parsha.

As its name indicates, our parsha is all about holiness. Unfortunately, “holiness” is a vague word that suffers from popular misconceptions. As the devout strive to “be holy,” it would help if they knew what it meant. The danger of misunderstanding holiness is clear and present, so we would do well to set the record straight.

The Torah bookmarks our parsha with calls for holiness (Vayikra 19:2; 20:26) and the eclectic collection of mitzvot found within provides the Jewish definition of the concept. The study of these mitzvot is therefore the logical starting point for the study of holiness. As we make our way through the parsha, reading mitzvah after mitzvah, things start coming into focus in an unexpected way.

“Ritualistic” mitzvot are to be expected and indeed, our parsha includes several such mitzvot (cf. 19:5-8,19,30). We also find prohibitions against pagan practices (19:4,26-28;20:2,6), drinking blood (19:26), adultery (20:10), incest (20:17), sexual deviance (20:13,15) and family purity (20:18). These mitzvot would fit well into anyone’s perception of holiness.

But there are other ingredients. We are told to respect parents and the elderly (19:3,32), save a portion of the harvest for the poor (19:9-10) and pursue justice (19:15). We find prohibitions against theft (19:11), dishonesty (19:11,12,35,36), gossip (19:16) and revenge (19:18). At first glance, these basic laws of morality might not appear to have anything to do with holiness, but the fact is, crimes against man undermine our potential for holiness no less than crimes against G-d.

However, it does not end there. The most famous mitzvah of all is also an essential element of holiness:

You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.


This comes as a surprise. What’s love got to do with it? How does love make you holy?

It seems that there is more to holiness than mere “holiness.” People tend to think of holiness as a higher form of spirituality in which man focuses exclusively on G-d. But our parsha informs us that striving to connect to G-d will fail to sanctify man as long as love for fellow Jews is lacking. In the end, our relationship with G-d is contingent on our relationship with our fellow Jew.

The Torah’s presentation of this fundamental mitzvah provides practical lessons for human relationships. Let’s take a closer look:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. I am G-d.


The mitzvah here is not simply love your neighbor, but to love your enemy! The Torah is saying don’t hate him, don’t take revenge, love him instead.

Easier said than done. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto describes the intense human need for revenge:

Revenge is sweeter than honey, for it is the only thing that will calm you down. If a man has the strength to abstain from that which human nature demands… he is indeed strong and powerful. It is easy only for the angels who lack these human characteristics… But it is the decree of the King… “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people.”

Path of the Just, chap. 11

Although the Torah forbids revenge, don’t think that the Torah expects us to “turn the other cheek.” Not at all. Being “righteous” and ignoring a personal attack is not holy; it is a dangerous approach that can lead to your own undoing.

The Torah prescribes the right way to deal with resentment, fix relationships and rebuild love:

Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor…


Rabbi David Fohrman explains that in place of revenge the Torah is prescribing rebuke. If you confront your brother and explain why you are upset with him, if you express your feelings and work it though together, then you won’t be left carrying a grudge. It may be uncomfortable to discuss the issue, but if you do not heed the Torah’s advice and choose instead to bottle up your feelings inside, don’t expect the resentment to go away. It will fester until it boils over one day in a fit of rage or an act of revenge.

The Torah demands nothing less than the complete repair of damaged relationships. G-d is not satisfied with half measures. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:

The negative traits [in man] disturb the heart and strive to preserve some impression or memory of the incident… Even if you agree to lend him that which he refused to lend you, you won’t give it with a smile. Or if you won’t do him harm, you won’t do him favors or help him out either. Or if you agree to help him out, you won’t do it together with him. Or if you forgave him and he is no longer your enemy, you are satisfied with that, but you won’t get back together and be friends again. Or even if you’ll be friends again, you won’t have the same degree of closeness as you once did…
The Torah therefore came out and stated plainly: “Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.” “As yourself” – without any differences, distinctions, games or tricks. Exactly as yourself.

Path of the Just, chap. 11

How can we accomplish such an incredible thing? Through open and honest communication. Admonish your neighbor and then you will love him. Communicating upsetness does not ruin a relationship; it’s the only way to save it. Old-fashioned rebuke and spirited debate is the great Jewish secret. This is the Torah’s formula for maintaining love and keeping the peace, and it’s a critical ingredient in the holiness recipe. Best of all, it really works!

1 comment:

  1. The best communication is through silence. See my note about your commentary on Midbar. The common silence is our common faith. The frustration of not communicating we have as 21st century beings is that we try hard to hear this silence in synagogues. We want to feel, but we don't know how, Rabbi's try to help us. Few succeed.