Making sense of the sedra: Kedoshim

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Making sense of the sedra: Kedoshim

How to love your neighbour

Photo: Ronny Sison
Photo: Ronny Sison

Since 7 October, there has been a tremendous increase in the amount of volunteering and charity to support all those affected by the war. Chesed (kindness), is a fundamental pillar of Judaism. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:2: “The world stands on three things – Torah, avodah (work/service of God/self-sacrifice), and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness)”.

It is easy, enjoyable and rewarding to act charitably towards people and organisations that are close to our hearts, but it can be harder to feel positively towards people with whom we are not connected or with whom we have conflicting views.

This week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim, reflects this issue in a very well-known verse: “…love your neighbour as yourself…” (Vayikra 19:18). The whole verse actually reads, “Do not take revenge, do not bear a grudge, love your neighbour as yourself, I am God”.

People cannot turn their feelings on or off on demand. How can we be commanded not to take revenge or bear a grudge? Perhaps someone has severely wronged us and we cannot forgive and forget? Can we not hold a grudge against someone who has hurt us in the past? What if our neighbour is an unsavoury or rude character? And what does “I am God” add to the verse?

Whilst our actions are demonstrable, our feelings are internal. Humans are complex beings and, unlike animals, we are able to control our feelings and behave in a way that is not in sync with our emotions. However we may feel internally, our actions can outwardly demonstrate how we relate to others in a way that is incongruent with our feelings. In addition, if we repeatedly act in positive ways towards someone else and invest time and effort in them, we may find that our feelings towards them grow in a similarly positive way.

Sometimes it can be hard to find redeeming qualities in others if their behaviour is extremely offensive. Even so, everyone is created in the image of God and we all have a spark of godliness within us. Perhaps “I am God” is a nudge to remind us that, even if we are struggling to find positive feelings, every person has a purpose in the world. So, if all else fails, start by looking for that spark and go from there.

It may also be that “I am God” is there to remind us that, regardless of how we act, only we and God know our true thoughts and emotions. Even if we act kindly on the outside, we may still have some personal growth work to do to develop our feelings and integrity.

This is why the verse contains three stages, from the easiest to most difficult.

Photo: Ronny Sison

First, do not take revenge, even if you do bear a grudge. It may be too much to ask for a person to love someone else if the relationship is toxic, but even if we are just able to refrain from taking revenge, that is also a mitzvah in its own right. Then try to remove the sense of grudge, and finally we can try to reach the level of actually loving the person.

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