At the centre of the mosaic books is Vayikra. At the centre of Vayikra is the “holiness code” (chapter 19) with its momentous call: “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” And at the centre of chapter 19 is a brief paragraph which, by its positioning, is the apex, the high point, of the Torah:
Do not hate your brother in your heart.
You must surely admonish your neighbour and not bear sin because of him.
Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people.
Love your neighbour as yourself. I am G-d. (19: 17-18)
I want, in this study, to examine the second of these provisions: “You must surely admonish your neighbour and not bear sin because of him.”
Rambam and Ramban agree in seeing two quite different levels of meaning in this sentence. This is how Rambam puts it:
When one person sins against another, the latter should not hate him and remain silent. As it is said about the wicked: “And Absolom spoke to Amnon neither good nor evil, although Absolom hated Amnon.” Rather, he is commanded to speak to him and to say to him, “Why did you do such-and-such to me? Why did you sin against me in such-and-such a matter?” As it is said, “You must surely admonish your neighbour.” If he repents and requests forgiveness from him, he must forgive and not be cruel, as it is said, “And Abraham prayed to G-d . . .”If someone sees his fellow committing a sin or embarking on a path that is not good, it is a commandment to make him return to the good and to make known to him that he is sinning against himself by his evil actions, as it is said, “You must surely admonish your neighbour” . . .
“You shall surely remonstrate with your neighbour” – this is a separate command , namely that we must teach him the reproof of instruction. “And not bear sin because of him” – for you will bear sin because of his transgression if you do not rebuke him . . .
However, it seems to me that the correct interpretation is that the expression “you shall surely remonstrate” is to be understood in the same way as “And Abraham remonstrated with Avimelekh”. The verse is thus saying: “Do not hate your brother in your heart when he does something to you against your will, but instead you should remonstrate with him, saying, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ and you will not bear sin because of him by covering up your hatred in your heart and not telling him, for when you remonstrate with him, he will justify himself before you or he will regret his action and admit his sin, and you will forgive him.”
The difference between the two interpretations is that one is social, the other interpersonal. On Rambam’s second and Ramban’s first reading, the command is about collective responsibility. When we see a fellow Jew about to commit a sin, we must try to persuade him not to do so. We are not allowed to say, “That is a private matter between him and G-d.” “All Israel,” said the sages, “are sureties for one another.” We are each responsible, not only for our own conduct, but for the behaviour of others. That is a major chapter in Jewish law and thought.
However, both Rambam and Ramban are aware that this is not the plain sense of the text. Taken in context, what we have before us is a subtle account of the psychology of interpersonal relations.
Judaism has sometimes been accused by Christianity of being about justice rather than love (“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”). This is entirely untrue. There is a wonderful teaching in Avot deRabbi Natan: “Who is the greatest hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.” What sets the Torah apart is its understanding of the psychology of hatred.
If someone has done us harm, it is natural to feel aggrieved. What then are we to do in order to fulfil the command, “Do not hate your brother in your heart”? The Torah’s answer is: Speak. Converse. Challenge. Remonstrate. It may be that the other person had a good reason for doing what he did. Or it may be that he was acting out of malice, in which case our remonstration will give him, if he so chooses, the opportunity to apologise, and we should then forgive him. In either case, talking it through is the best way of restoring a broken relationship. Once again we encounter here one of the leitmotivs of Judaism: the power of speech to create, sustain and mend relationships.
Maimonides cites a key prooftext. The story is told (2 Samuel 13) of how Amnon, one of King David’s children, raped his half-sister Tamar. When Absolom, Tamar’s brother, hears about the episode, his reaction seems on the face of it irenic, serene:
Her brother Absolom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet, now my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absolom’s house, a desolate woman. When King David heard all this, he was furious. Absolom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad . . .”Appearances, however, deceive. Absolom is anything but forgiving. He waits for two years, and then invites Amnon to a festive meal at sheep-shearing time. He gives instructions to his men: “Listen! When Amnon is in high spirits from drinking wine and I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon down,’ then kill him.” And so it happened. Absolom’s silence was not the silence of forgiveness but of hate – the hate of which Pierre de LaClos spoke in Les Liaisons Dangereuses when he wrote the famous line: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
There is another equally powerful example in Bereishith:
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age, and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him (velo yachlu dabro leshalom, literally, “they could not speak with him to peace”).
On this, R. Jonathan Eybeschuetz (c. 1690-1764) comments: “Had they been able to sit together as a group, they would have spoken to one another and remonstrated with each other, and would eventually have made their peace with one another. The tragedy of conflict is that it prevents people from talking together and listening to one another.” A failure to communicate is often the prelude to revenge.
The inner logic of the two verses in our sedra is therefore this: “Love your neighbour as yourself. But not all neighbours are loveable. There are those who, out of envy or malice, have done you harm. I do not therefore command you to live as if you were angels, without any of the emotions natural to human beings. I do however forbid you to hate. That is why, when someone does you wrong, you must confront the wrongdoer. You must tell him of your feelings of hurt and distress. It may be that you completely misunderstood his intentions. Or it may be that he genuinely meant to do you harm, but now, faced with the reality of the injury he has done you, he may sincerely repent of what he did. If, however, you fail to talk it through, there is a real possibility that you will bear a grudge and in the fullness of time, come to take revenge – as did Absolom.”
What is so impressive about the Torah is that it both articulates the highest of high ideals, and at the same time speaks to us as human beings. If we were angels it would be easy to love one another. But we are not. An ethic that commands us to love our enemies, without any hint as to how we are to achieve this, is simply unliveable. Instead, the Torah sets out a realistic programme. By being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.
Yom Hazikaron / Yom Ha'atzmaut 5767 - Israel's 59th Birthday
As Israel celebrates its 59th birthday, travel back with me in time to that day, that Erev Shabbat 59 years ago, to a question that threatened to divide Israel’s first government. The question was “how should Israel’s Declaration of Independence be phrased?" The religious zionists said we must thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu. How could we not? Could it be that Jewish sovereignty is restored after 2,000 years and we not thank G-d? Could it be that we witness the realisation of the prophetic dream and not thank Hashem? Could it be that we have lived to see the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu come true?
Im Yiheye nidachecha b’ktse hashamayim
If you are scattered to the furthermost lands under the heaven
Misham yekabetscha Hashem Elokecha Misham yikachecha
From there will the Lord your G-d gather you and bring you back
Can we not thank G-d?
G-d forbid said the secular Zionists. For 2,000 years we relied on G-d, we prayed to G-d, we beseeched G-d and nothing happened. Only when we stopped relying on G-d and started relying on ourselves did we return. We may not thank Hashem. And do you know they might still be arguing today were it not for a fine diplomat, I think it was the late Rav Maimon Z”TsL, who said, what we must do is thank “Tsur Yisrael”. What is Tsur Yisrael? To the religious what is Tsur Yisrael if not Hashem himself? And to the secular, what is Tsur Yisrael if not the flinty, rocklike character of the Jewish people themselves? And so up stood David ben Gurion and said “Placing our trust in Tsur Yisrael…..” and diplomatic disaster was avoided.
Can we doubt, after all that has happened these 59 years; that in a sense both were right? Israel was and is a divine miracle. Israel also was and is a human miracle. It came about from an Itaruta Dele’eyla, an awakening from on high, and at the same time an Itaruta Delatata, an awakening down here below, among all these who pioneered Zionism and built the land. For one glorious moment, in truth for 59 years of glorious moments, the power of heaven and the strength of Jews down here on earth met and created a miracle. And those heroes who built the land, those giborim and giborot who fought for it, saved and in tragically many cases, gave their lives for it, became Shutafim Le Hakadosh Baruch Hu B’Maaseh Bereshit. Partners with G-d in the great act of creation. That is what Judaism classically was. That, thanks to Israel, is what Judaism is. The place where human effort and divine providence meet and create something sober minds would have judged impossible. Ze hayom asa Hashem nagila venismecha bo.
And the miracle gets more and more miraculous. There was a fine American writer, sadly he died last year. I never met him but he sent me the most beautiful letter just before he died. His name was Milton Himmelfarb and he wrote this, 40 years ago, just days after the Six-Day War.
He said: Each of us Jews knows just how thoroughly ordinary we are, yet taken together we seem caught up in things great and inexplicable. The number of Jews in the world, he said, is smaller than the statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us. And then he quoted the words of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Ask now of the days that have past which were before you since the day G-d created man on earth and ask, from one end of the heaven to the other, when such a great thing as this ever happened before, or was ever heard of.
Those words were spoken 3,300 years ago and never have they been more true than now.
Whoever heard of a people scattered around the world for 2,000 years returning to their land and their birthplace.
Whoever heard of a people powerless, recovering their sovereignty, their independence and their power.
Whoever heard of a language older by a thousand years than ancient Greek and ancient Latin being spoken as the language of everyday speech.
Whoever heard of a people who walked through the deepest, darkest valley of the shadow of death that ever was and live again and again breathe the air.
Ask now of the days that have past which were before you since the day G-d created man on earth and ask, from one end of the heaven to the other, when such a great thing as this ever before, or was ever heard of.
And the miracle continues to grow.
Elaine and I were in Israel last month with the victims of the Katusha attacks last summer. We were there this month over Pesach. The mood of the people is quite remarkable. Anyone else, any other people on earth who has been through what Israel has been through this last year: Lebanon, Hizbollah, Hamas, Iran, this boycott, that boycott, condemnation on every side, for daring to have the chutspah to want to stay alive. And the internal problems within Israel. Any other nation would have been forgiven for being sunk in depression and despair, but Israel is a country, Israel is a people, whose resilient strength, fortitude, courage, whose capacity for hope is beyond belief.
And I tell you, that secular Israeli’s are the only people who believe that secular Israeli’s are secular. To the rest of us, certainly to me, it is quite clear that they are ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim, believers the children of believers. Because nothing that Israel has done from the day of its birth to today could have been done without faith. Faith in life, faith in the future, faith in the human spirit, faith in freedom and yes, faith in Tsur Yisrael, the rock of a people which is immovable, because it rests on the rock of G-d.
(Excerpt from the address at Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzmaut Ceremony 23 April 2007)
(The full speech can be heard at www.chiefrabbi.org/yh2007.mp3)