Parshat Kedoshim: Friends, Jews, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Ears!

Esti Honig

Esti Honig (Midreshet Lindenbaum Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program 2001) teaches Gemara and Tanakh at Kohelet Yeshiva High School just outside Philadelphia, PA, where she is also the director of Israel Guidance for Girls. 


Parashat Kedoshim starts much the way several other paragraphs in Sefer Vayikra start, “וידבר ה׳ אל משה לאמר”, Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying (19:1). But what follows does change the common pattern, for Moshe is told to tell the subsequent words not to Aharon, or the Kohanim, or to B’nei Yisrael, but to “כל עדת בני ישראל” – the whole congregation of the Children of Israel (Vayikra 19:2). The only other place that a mitzvah is specifically told to the whole congregation of Israel is the mitzvah of Korban Pesach. Chazal already noticed this occurrence, and Torat Kohanim on this passuk states that this section of the Torah was transmitted in full assembly – every member of the congregation of Israel was there. This is in contrast to the rest of the Torah, where Hashem would teach Moshe, Moshe would then teach it individually, in turn, to Aharon, to Aharon’s sons, to the elders, and only then to all of Yisrael. Rashi, quoting the same Torat Kohanim, explains that this is because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are תלוין בה – dependent on it, or contained in it. It is unclear whether this refers merely to the next passuk – the mitzvah of קדושים תהיו – Be Holy, or if it refers to the entire section. And looking through the chapter, one begins to see the reason for it being so fundamental. While the chapter may begin with the overarching mitzvah of being holy, and continue with the esoteric laws of leftover meat korbanot, it contains so many of the laws that are fundamental to the way that we interact with each other, both as individuals and as a society. These include laws such as supporting the less fortunate, honesty, business ethics, judicial integrity, and so on, all culminating with the famous “great principle” – ״ואהבת לרעך כמוך״ – Love your neighbor like yourself (19:18).

While not all of the mitzvot in this perek are interpersonal, throughout there is an emphasis on the relationships between people. Ten times there is a mitzvah that is specifically phrased in terms of behavior toward another. “An other” is described in 4 different ways: a member of your עם (nation or people), עמית (neighbor or kinsman), רע (fellow or friend), and אח (brother). It is clear that these are all talking about the same groups of people – your fellow humans. Indeed, in most translations that I have seen, there is not even a specific definition for each term, they are used interchangeably. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, points out a progression both in the content of the mitzvot and in the way that each “fellow” is referred to in the various mitzvot.

He notes that this progression begins with the mitzvah of ״לא תלך רכיל בעמיך״ – You shall not go about as a talebearer among thy people (19:16). Here, he says, the people are looked at as separate עמים – each household is its own closed off circle, and a person must not breach those separate circles by bearing tales from one to another.

The Torah continues from there with the prohibition of “לא תעמוד על דם רעך” – You shall not stand inactive by the blood of your neighbor. Rav Hirsch explains that it’s not enough to refrain from actively bearing tales and breaching circles, but we must actively come to the rescue of someone in need. Here, he relates the word ״רע״ – neighbor, friend, fellow, to the רועה – the shepherd. The job of the shepherd is to protect and help the sheep find pasture and sustenance. It is not enough to refrain from harming our fellow, since he is not just a member of another closed circle, but a רע – one whom we should be trying to protect and help to grow as a shepherd does for his sheep.

The Perek continues with “לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך” – You shall not hate your brother in your heart. Beyond instructing our actions, the injunctions extend to our feelings as well. No matter what the other person has done to lose their status as a רע, we must still recognize him as an אח – a brother, children of the same Father – of God. And even if you would otherwise hate this other person, maybe even with good reason, don’t allow yourself to feel that hatred, because you both come from the same “divine descent.”

In order to help us not feel that enmity towards another, we are also instructed that if we feel there is something lacking in someone else, “הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך” – repeatedly rebuke your neighbor. Rav Hirsch here points out that the connotation of עמית is someone who is equal – for we cannot even think about admonishing someone else if we feel that we are superior to them.

Even if we feel that we have reached out and extended ourselves to another person, and been continually rebuffed, we must still make sure to “לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמך” – to not take revenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people (19:18). We must think of the other as בן עמינו – we are members of the same nation, the nation of ה׳. We are all parts of that nation and just as God demands that we do other mitzvot, God also demands that we work on our own feelings towards others.

All of these mitzvot regarding the way we act towards each other culminate in the famous “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” – Love your neighbor like yourself. This directive has nothing to do with any particular qualities of this other person, but Hashem has charged us to find in every other person a ״מרעה״ – “the furthering of his own well-being, the condition for his own happiness in life” (Rav Hirsch on 19:18). When we rejoice at the good things that happen to our fellow, when we are sad at the tragedies that befall him, we depend upon each other’s wellbeing. To accomplish this, we must see ourselves as a Creation of God, and one of many, then we will be able to look towards all those other creations and care for the well-being of all of them equally.

At each step of the way, Hashem guides us to look at ourselves and how we fit in with the people around us. Some of our behavior is dependent on their behaviors, but we must learn to look at ourselves not just among other people but as among all the children of Hashem. With the common life mission that has been given to us as such, we can embrace the well-being of all those around us, and look out for their welfare as our own, independent of their actions. This fundamental truth and basis of society must be commanded directly to all of Yisrael together – אל כל עדת בני ישראל.

Shabbat Shalom!


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