Rabbi Gary J Robuck RH 2021

Love your Neighbour as Yourself
Rabbi Gary J Robuck

We have all seen them. Grainy videos, filmed by a passer-by or eyewitness, depicting an emotional outburst on a plane; in an airport, in a meeting of the school board or the streets of Sydney. Men and women caught protesting the wearing of masks, enforced lockdowns or being compelled to receive a vaccine.  If we were to judge the response to the extraordinary circumstances of our time by only these individuals, you’d think we were all losing our minds. 

In my country of birth, insurgents in January stormed the steps of the capital shouting obscenities, lashing out murderously, utterly out of control; disdainful of the truth, fuelled by lies.   Since last Rosh Hashanah, violence once again flared between Israel and Hamas. The conflict appears intractable and more death and destruction seems certain in a region resistant to reason and unable to temper an ages-old hatred.  

It makes me meshugeh. All over the world people have stopped listening to one another, stopped seeing one another and grown increasingly intolerant.  In the fight against the pandemic, we hear far too often and from far too many, about “my freedom”, “my choice” this despite the peril to us all, notwithstanding that we are in the same boat.  We have so many common interests:  the welfare of the planet, the future of our children, the sharing of scarce food and water resources as well as the battle against the pandemic.  Why therefore do we choose the path of conflict and rivalry rather than cooperation and responsibility? 

This morning, I’d like to suggest an “old school” answer to this defining problem of our age, a moral principle which has always been, k’muvan, easily understood by people of every race and religion, but which is now, endangered. A principle, which if it could be restored, would help to bring our world a bit closer and our prospects for the future, a bit brighter.  

In Leviticus chapter 19:18 it reads:  V’ahavtah l’riecha kamocha – “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Bible 101. It is akin to Hillel’s later teaching, “that which is hateful unto you, do not do to others”. It is time to take these teachings out of mothballs and stage a reunion tour. 

Rabbi Akiva called - “you shall love your neighbour as yourself,” the greatest principle in all of the Torah.It also aroused Rashi’s interest. He explained the passage in this way: “that which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow”.  You are not to rob or steal from him, commit adultery and other mitzvot that are similar." The meta-commentator went even further when he wrote: “Because all human beings are part of the same body, to hurt another person in an effort to get even is to hurt part of oneself.”  This is what we might call, an argument from interrelatedness. 

Similarly, the Rambam wrote: “It is a mitzvah for every human to love each and every one as he loves his own body. Sing his praises and show concern for the financial well-being of others as one might for one’s own well-being and as he would for his own honour. But he added this kicker: “Anyone who aggrandises himself at the expense of another person has no portion in the world to come.”  Strong stuff.

These two verses give rise to questions that have long engaged scholars and sages.  Questions like:  what does it mean to love?  And who are our neighbours, those most deserving of our respect, our attention and our sacrifice?

Professor John Collins of Yale Divinity School, addressed these questions one after another in a recently published online article.  

This is how he began“What does it mean to love one’s neighbour? “We often think of this (verse) as requiring us to feel something, but it is not.”  It is about action.  He infers this from context, from all the verses aroundnumber 18.  Beginning in verse 13:

ויקרא יט:יג לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק אֶת רֵעֲךָ וְלֹא תִגְזֹל Lev 19:13  “You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal…render an unjust judgment...go around as a slanderer among your people, or profit by the blood of your neighbour.”

Love is not an emotion in the Torah but refers to treating one’s neighbour justly—the manner you might treat someone whom you love. This brings us to the second question. 

Who is meant by your “neighbour”? 

Again, Collins follows the Biblical breadcrumbs, searching for nearby clues.  He agrees with the Rambam thatoriginally, the “neighbour” (רע) in Leviticus 19 refers to members of the Israelite community. Let’s listen: 

ויקרא יט:יז לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ Lev 19:17 You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your kinsman, and not incur guilt because of him. 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour like yourself ...”  The term “neighbour” is the fourth in a sequence that includes “brother,” “kinsman,” and “your people.” Neighbour, like the previous three, refers to a fellow Israelite, another Jew.  Today, in a more integrated society, we spread the blanket of love and responsibility over all people regardless of their faith or background because we know that their welfare and our welfare is intertwined. Simple right? 

Finally, we must not forget the last part of the verse, the most difficult idea found there.  The word, kamokha, meaning “like yourself” or “one who is like you”?

Collins cites the 12th century commentator Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) who wrote:

ועל דעתי “In my opinion, it means what it sounds like, that one should love for good to happen to one’s neighbour the way one would love it for oneself.”  How medicinal it sounds for a world being torn apart by parochial or political interests. 

To me, these different interpretations imply one thing: “we should wish upon our neighbour the same benefits that we wish upon ourselves”; (opportunity), wealth, honour, learning, “in all things”, loving our neighbours as Jonathan loved David, with the love of one’s soul (I Samuel 20:17).

When I was a boy, I, like most of us, was taught the Golden Rule:

“There are creeds and rules to guide us and help us in life’s school, but the finest creed for every need, is the good old golden rule.”

Do you remember being told by a parent or teacher: “Never judge another until you have walked a mile (or 1.6 klms.) in his shoes.”  Eastern religions like Confucianism highlight the importance of “reciprocity” while Taoism states: “regard your neighbour’s gain as your gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.”                 

In Islam, one is disqualified from being called a believer “until you wish for others that which you wish for yourself.”                  

These words are etched in time and memory.  Albert Schweitzer, the 20th century Nobel winning doctor, missionary, philosopher and musician, introduced an additional consideration and reminded us of how much is at stake when we hate our neighbour and are suspicious of the stranger.  He wrote: “Until one extends the circle of compassion to all living things, one will not find peace.”   

To be sure, these are only words - there has always been terrible discrimination, people have always taken advantage of the stranger.  In the last 100 years, the world has suffered through two world wars.  But it seems different now.  Like we are in the cusp of something.   People are angrier. We are less charitable of spirit and more judgmental. 

I thought of this when news came out about the fateful engagement party in Melbourne hosted by a Chassidic family.  How quickly the vituperance grew.  People were absolutely beside themselves.  Of course, their behaviour was, extremely inappropriate as well as against the law.  But the reaction, the emotion, born of lockdown, was almost as terrible. Do our fellow Jews cease to be our rei’im, our friends, when they mess up? 

This August I hosted a webinar series with seven extraordinary Jewish leaders. One session featured Rabbi Jeff Glickman and his wife Mindy, who are popularising a concept known as GLeE - Give Locally Everywhere.  Jeff and Mindy are expanding the definition of neighbour beyond one’s co-religionist to embrace people who are geographically and racially diverse. Travelling throughout America’s south, they gave to local United Way agencies, food banks, public broadcasting networks and most interestingly, became members of Jewish congregations- shuls they would never attend.  They did this to demonstrate that we are all neighbours wherever we may be from.    

We’ve seen plenty of examples of valour, kindness and empathy in Australia too. 

In Melbourne, chamber musician Josephine Vains gave free cello concerts during lockdown for her neighbours to enjoy.  She said, “We all need something to look forward to. Something to do and hear. Together.”

As Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Kanishka Raffel said one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been “that we’ve remembered our neighbours and our neighbourhoods”. “We’ve realised that we have so much in common, and there’s so much that we can offer to each other.”

In an article that appeared in the Herald’s Good Weekend on August 23, writer Konrad Marshall observed, “The coronavirus has sometimes brought out the worst in us, but we need only to look more deeply to find stories of kindness, generosity and connection. We may have retreated behind closed doors, into a collective gloom”, he wrote, “yet it is in this darkness that acts of kindness, and compassion, and levity, and connection… stand out best” (SMH, August 23, 2021).

Before concluding, I’d like to share with you a segment from a 2018 broadcast of the BBC’s “Thought for the Day” featuring the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l. On the program he described a social science study known as the Robbers’ Cave Experiment.

The researchers wanted to understand the dynamics of group conflict (why people hate). They selected a group of 22 eleven-year-old boys, none of whom had met one another before. They randomly divided them into two groups, and each was taken to a remote summer camp in Oklahoma.

Initially neither group knew of the existence of the other. The first week was dedicated to team-building, but in the second week they were introduced to one another through a series of competitions: prizes for the winners, nothing for the losers. Almost immediately there was tension between them: name-calling and abuse. It got worse. Each burned the other’s flag and raided their cabins. They even objected to eating together in the same dining hall. That’s how two groups of children became enemies.

The rabbi explained how the group came to a solution. In the last stage of the experiment, the researchers arranged for the children to be faced with a series of problems they could only solve by working together. Within days they became friends. They’d turned themselves into a “bigger us”.

We Jews have been taught to be considerate of the “bigger us”: to love more fiercely and to fight for tzedek (justice) on behalf of “the bigger us”.  Many, however, see only themselves and care little about those of a different race, religion or background and this is tragic for all of us.  As a world this New Year, we have big problems to solve and they must be solved together. So let us try wherever possible and as frequently as we can – if only in our own garden patch - to see, listen and understand one another better, to turn the stranger into a neighbour and ultimately, into a friend; to rejoice in our commonality and to resist division; in lockdown and when at last, lockdown is over.

Our world has a raging fever.  Let us ask ourselves:  What role can we each play to turn down the temperature?

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