God tells Moses to speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them that they must be holy, as God is Holy. There is then a list of behaviours that seem to give a clue what is meant by this instruction, including reverence for parents, keeping of shabbat, not turning to idolatry, leaving some gleanings for the poor, not stealing and so on. These generally fall into the categories of specific to worship of the one God, of social and economic justice, of care for those with disabilities in society, of animal welfare and care for the environment, and of care for the stranger or the disadvantaged in society, as well as laws do with sexual and power relationships.
The concept that the land is only for the people so long as they behave according to these laws of right and proper behaviour is reinforced, as the Israelites are reminded that the previous occupants of the land were driven out of it for not behaving well. The culmination of the portion is surely the verse well known to all followers of the Jewish and the Christian traditions: – ve’ahavta le’rayecha kamocha, ani Adonai – you will love your neighbour as yourself. I am God.
The Golden Rule, phrased in Leviticus as “Love your neighbour as yourself” appears in many forms and in many different religious literatures: Jesus is reported in the New Testament as saying that the two great rules of behaviour were “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, your soul and your might”; and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” . – in other words the Shema (from Deuteronomy) and the Holiness Code given here in Leviticus together give us all we need to live a good life.
Perhaps the most powerful telling for me is the story found in Talmud, when we are told “It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, 'Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.' But Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, Hillel said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.' (Shabbat 31a)
Hillel shows great patience and openness to someone who is clearly - from the context –determined to test both of those qualities. But his formulation of the golden rule is genius. Not to do things to other people that are hateful to you is vastly easier than the somewhat obscure commandment to love ones neighbour as one loves oneself. What if what you would like is not what they would like? What exactly is a neighbour? What if one doesn’t particularly love oneself?
The end of that story as told in the Talmud – that this principle of paying attention and not doing to others what you would not like done to yourself is the WHOLE TORAH – everything else is commentary , is also something we should keep hold of. Judaism is a strange creature, neither solely race nor religion nor culture, nor faith but a collection of ideas we have held on to and transmitted with clarity down the generations. Ultimately how we behave towards others is the whole of Torah and everything else is there to make sure we do it the best way we can. So all the rituals and the laws and the fences around torah are there to do one job only – to protect the teaching that bible tells us was given to us by God, of looking out for others the same way we would look out for ourselves; of not doing something to someone else that we would find distressing if done to us. No more and no less – it is indeed the one principle we should keep before us always, and everything else will fall into place.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild