Kedoshim: Love and Justice

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot- Kedoshim

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:18)

Greetings from the relatively calm Hudson Valley.

As I write this, the city of Boston is on lock-down as the police search for one of the suspects in Monday’s terrible Boston Marathon bombing. The images from the Bay State greatly sadden me, if for no other reason than I recognize some of the areas now filled with armed police. (I lived in the Boston area for several years before coming to Poughkeepsie.)  It’s almost impossible for me to understand how a soul can be twisted and deformed to the point of terrorism. Leaving a homemade bomb in the middle of families and bystanders is an act beyond moral comprehension or ability to imagine.

Violence and cruelty have always been part of the human experience, but they are not the whole of the human experience. Love is also definitive of humanity; one need only think of the utterly brave and selfless responders (both professionals and ordinary folks) who rushed towards the explosions in Boston and Texas, ready to give of themselves to save and comfort the injured and frightened. We read in this week’s Torah portion that an aspect of kedusha, or holiness, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. As Rabbi Joe Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis pointed out earlier this week, our “neighbor” may be the person nearby who all of a sudden needs our love and compassion, though we have never met before.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the great principle of the Torah, but its application requires effort and reflection. The Torah Temimah, an anthology of rabbinic references to Torah verses, notes two separate texts from the Talmud where “love your neighbor” is used to clarify that the execution of criminals is to be done in the swiftest way possible. In other words, love does not set aside the demands of justice, but guides us in the application of justice. This, to me, is quite profound: the Talmud recognize that even a criminal deserving of death is, in a very real sense, our neighbor, and not exempted from our moral obligations and sensibilities. We do not call for bloody retribution, but for justice, tempered not by mercy, as such, but by a concern for retaining our own humanity in the face of cruelty and murder.

If the Boston bomber is taken alive, let him be tried and punished fairly, precisely to show him, the world and ourselves we are never who our enemies say we are. Love- for the stranger, the neighbor and even the one deserving of severe punishment- will be our redemption, and is, I believe, stronger than any bomb or weapon. The love demanded by the Torah is neither foolish nor naive; it is, instead, our light and guidance in navigating a sometimes cruel and painful world.

With prayers for a Shabbat of healing and hope,

RNJL

 

 

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