Leviticus: Love of neighbour is love of self

Leviticus: Love of neighbour is love of self

Social values of Leviticus illustrated by a circle of 5 hands, belong to people male and female, black and white.Leviticus. Vayikra.

Not the easiest book of Torah.

Five years ago, I started to teach at the Vancouver School of Theology. Naturally, our Dean asked which Hebrew Bible elective I would like to teach. “That’s easy!” I said. “Learning to Love Leviticus.”

“Um…” said our Dean. “How about Wisdom Literature instead?”

Because, she said, students avoid Leviticus. They see a boring instruction manual for priests. And the source of a famous anti-gay proof-text (Lev. 18:22). They know Leviticus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). But Jesus repeated that (Matt. 22:39). So, they see no need to study Leviticus.

“Why don’t you wait a few years?” the Dean suggested. “Until they know you, and your take on the book.”

So, five years have passed. And I think students know my take.

Yes, their criticisms are valid. But that’s no reason to avoid the book. Because mostly, Leviticus offers a vision of ethical and spiritual community. Where the emotional, moral, and spiritual state of every individual matters.

The health of the community is like a delicate force field. Joy, grief, illness, or crime disturb the energy field. But people can help reset it. With rituals of celebration, consolation, healing, and restitution (Lev. 1:1-5:26, Parshat Vayikra). Also, maternity leave for new mothers (Lev. 12:1-8, Parshat Tazria). Ceremonies of welcome for people as they recover from disfiguring illness (Lev. 14:1-32, Parshat Metzora). Accountability for corrupt leaders (Lev. 4:13-26, Parshat Vayikra). And limits on economic inequality (Lev. 26:3-46, Parshat Behar).

Landowners must feed the poor. Employ them. Pay them promptly. When there’s a labour dispute, judges must be fair. No one should take advantage of people with disabilities. Or lack of knowledge. Or less social power.

So, examine your heart. Are you taking advantage of someone? Maybe you carry scars from family trauma. Or a heartbreaking family secret. Something that leads you to hate yourself. Or direct your anger at an innocent. If so, then, speak directly about it. Try to heal whatever blocks your love (Lev. 19:9-18, Parshat Kedoshim).

When community members need money, loan it. Interest-free. Otherwise, the poorest fall deeper and deeper into debt. Create a culture of mutual support. Love your neighbour as yourself. Because you, too, could fall upon hard times.

Hit the economic reset button. Do a soft reset every 7 years. Landowners, take a year off from planting and harvesting. Grains and fruits will grow anyway. So, let the needy gather them and eat.

Every 50th year, do a hard reset. Help those who sold their land for emergency cash. Let them reclaim their property. Help people who sold their long-term labour for a short-term cash grant. Release those indentured servants from their debt. But don’t be afraid to lend, just because the 50th year reset is coming. Instead, lend a small amount (Lev. 25:1-55, Parshat Behar).

So, it’s a win-win! The wealthiest lose nothing. The poorest start life anew, debt-free.

Economic reset is not a generous act of charity. No! On the contrary: it’s selfish and it’s needed. Because, without it, society’s energy field would fail. Social safety nets would be overstressed. People would lose hope in a healthy life. Their anxiety and depression would grow, too. They would blame each other. Become paranoid. Fear imaginary enemies.

Finally, society would fracture. The community would be unable to unite in self-defence. So, it would be vulnerable to invasion. Then, its people would pray for rescue. But without social action, their prayers would be useless. Finally, after many deaths, their arrogance would be broken. So, together they would find their way back to right living (Lev.25:1-55, Parshat Bechukotai).

Seriously, Leviticus says. Stop loving money. Instead, love your neighbour as yourself. Because your own life depends on it.

  1. Nice essay.

    Also Leviticus is good for showing that everything in Judaism is up for interpretation. Perhaps we can discuss what may be the best examples of that within Leviticus and why I think it so important.

    Richard W.

    1. Yes, Richard! And thanks for reading and commenting. Do you want to briefly note an example here?

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