• The Torah includes five books.
The middle book is Vayikra, Leviticus.
• Vayikra, according to many scholars, discusses thirteen topics
The middle topic is everyday holiness, social equity.
• The apex of the teaching about holiness is one particular verse
Vayikra chapter 19, verse 18:
“You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I, HaShem, have spoken.”
• The verse has three sections, and the middle section is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – v’ahavtah l’reiacha kamocha
Many of us know that the second-century sage Rabbi Akiva calls this klal gadol baTorah – the great principle of Torah
What does this mean, “the great principle of Torah?”
It’s not just an expression of Rabbi Akiva’s values – or of human values in general, since all religious traditions share a version of this core teaching. It truly is the Torah’s main point.
Modern books usually have a linear structure: in fiction, the climax of a story is near the end. In nonfiction, each chapter lays the foundation for the ultimate conclusion at the end.
Many ancient books have a different structure, called by scholars a “chiastic structure” – after the Greek letter chi. [shaped like an x] The most important point is in the middle. Everything before leads up to it, and everything afterwards leads down from it.
The Torah has a chiastic structure. The most important point is in the middle book,Vayikra.
The book of Vayikra also has a chiastic structure. The most important verse is in the middle section.
The most important verse also has a chiastic structure.
If we look at the structure of this important verse, we might be able to learn a new way to work on our ability to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Vayikra 19:18: “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I, HaShem, have spoken.”
The verse has three parts: a prohibition – do not behave a certain way. A commandment – a alternative behavior. A rationale – why one is prohibited and the other is commanded.
The prohibition: You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your people
Instead: Love your neighbor as yourself
Rationale: I, HaShem, have spoken
Let’s think about the prohibition: What is revenge or bearing a grudge?
Our sages give what I might call the “Dagwood” interpretation.
On Tuesday, you ask your neighbor if you can borrow a tool. And your neighbor says “no.” On Wednesday, your neighbor comes by and asks to borrow your tool. If you say, “No, you can’t borrow my tool, because you wouldn’t lend me yours” – that’s revenge. And if you say, “Sure, you can borrow my tool – I’m not selfish like you,” that’s bearing a grudge.
Literally, that’s what they say – example of the tools and all.
What’s it about? It’s a recognition that it is not easy to be nice and generous and giving all the time. Because not everyone is nice and generous and giving. And when people aren’t nice and generous and giving, other people get hurt and scarred. And there are many ways of acting out of our own pain – whether we harm others materially (like not sharing or doing business with them) or in words (like sharing but with the verbal jab). And we know that much of the teaching in the first half of Vayikra is about the sacrificial system – how the cohanim use ritual to help people deal with and release their pain, worries, and fears. And we know that much of the teaching in the second half of Vayikra is about the importance of social justice practices to minimize the possibility of hurt.
So, acting out of our own pain is something we should not do.
Instead, we should: Love your neighbor as yourself – according to some interpretations, to love the good for them as you love the good for yourself, to sincerely desire that good things will happen for them, just as you desire that good things should happen for yourself.
But this is not easy! How do we work NOT to act out of our own inner scars?
The answer lies in the third part of the verse, the “rationale” “I am God.” It turns out, that God will help us – not only through the sacrificial system. But if we let awareness of the presence of God into our thoughts and feelings, if we meditate on God the creator, we will be able to act differently.
Remember Rabbi Akiva saying, the great principle of Torah is “love your neighbor as yourself”? It turns out that not all scholars of his era agreed with him. Here is Rabbi Akiva’s famous saying in context:
Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a great principle of Torah. Ben Azzai said, A greater principle is found in Bereisheet/Genesis chapter 5, verse 1: “When God created Adam, God made him in the likeness of God.” So that you should not say, “Since I despise myself, let my neighbor be despised with me; since I am cursed, let my neighbor be cursed with me.”
Ben Azzai recognizes that we do not all love ourselves. In fact, sometimes we have a very hard time being ourselves and living with ourselves. At those times, if we follow “love your neighbor as yourself,” we won’t act very nicely towards others. Instead, we will express our pain, and take it out on them.
We need a principle greater than our regard for our own selves in order to love others.
The 13th century French scholar Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor follows up beautifully on Ben Azzai’s teaching: How does God expect one who has been wronged to the point of wanting to take revenge to love one’s neighbor? The answer lies in the final, overlooked clause of this verse: “I YHWH.” God is telling us, let your love for me overcome your hatred for this other person. Let it keep you from taking revenge, and as a result peace will come between you.
The Torah is teaching that we should love simply because there is a God. We should not love because we are happy and satisfied and all is right with our lives – because that often isn’t the case. We should not love because a person deserves to be loved – lots of times people don’t deserve to be loved because they haven’t been loving.
The Torah is asking us to practice “ahavat chinam” – baseless love. Vayikra teaches that hateful acts pollute the sanctuary. And it’s well-known that our sages taught that “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred, expressed through civil war, led to the destruction of the sanctuary. In their view, any hatred is baseless – because the system of revenge, of giving people back evil for evil, is illogical, senseless, and destructive.
I want to welcome everyone and ask everyone to contribute to an ideal community – a place where we all, who are far from perfect, can try to act out of love, think about what others needs, and maybe we can be a new temple of the heart.
— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2007