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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Holiness is right next door

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Within our upcoming Torah portions is a sentence that has generated a tremendous amount of interpretation. Leviticus 19:18 states that every person should “love your neighbour as yourself.” It seems like a simple statement, and yet there is so much subjectivity involved that one could argue it is meaningless.

For instance, do I love in any measurable form? What is an expression of love for me may not be an expression of love for anyone else. Also, who constitutes my neighbour? Is it someone who lives in my community? Is it my fellow Jew? Is it gender specific? All of these questions arise without even beginning to address how I love myself and whether I can extend that love to anyone else?

As with any other commandment in the Torah, there are varying opinions among commentators and much debate around this verse. It appears within the “Holiness Code,” the portion of the Torah that describes how we can elevate ourselves toward holiness. Certainly we would want to pinpoint all the details that could help us elevate ourselves.

One of the approaches to this verse is expressed by the sage Rabbi Akiva, who taught us that the Torah equates your life with the life of your neighbor, but it doesn’t prioritize your neighbour’s life over your own. In other words, your love for your neighbour should not exceed your personal commitment to yourself. There is no model for martyrdom, but rather a model of self-appreciation that extends toward those around us.

Within the Talmud, Rashi presents an interesting interpretation of identifying who would qualify as “your neighbour”. According to Rashi, this neighbour is none other than God. This interpretation is additive to the literal. In other words, the Torah verse not only refers to our human neighbours, but also to our Divine Neighbour. The example given is that just as we would not want God to ignore our requests and demands, so we should not ignore God’s requests and demands.

This interpretation certainly raises the bar of achieving holiness. It’s difficult enough to treat everyone around us with the respect and honour we give ourselves, but to now extend that to God creates a layer of spiritual complexity that’s challenging at best. It means I must keep God in my thoughts at all times. It means I must respect everything in this world as belonging to God the way I would want my belongings to be respected by others. It means everyone I meet is to be treated honourably as I would want anyone meeting my children to treat them. It puts God at the core of everything and all my relationships.

Rashi has taken the concept of holiness and introduced into it the aspect of God. Now, part of holiness involves my ability to view God as both a transcendent unknowing Being as well as my closest neighbour.

Rachael Turkienicz is director of Rachaelscentre.org.

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