by Rabbi Avi Billet
In these weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, there is a widely practiced custom to study Pirkei Avot – the Chapters or Ethics of the Fathers. Some even extend this practice until Rosh Hashana, instead of having one round of study, they complete Avot four times.
The repetition is not merely meant to be a rote review. It is meant to entrench in one's mind and heart important reminders and teachings from a whole slew of rabbinic figures from the Tannaitic period. Any person who follows even twenty five percent of the "Ethics" taught in the six chapters will be one of the more ethical and wholesome people around town.
Reading Parshat Kedoshim, one finds very similar sentiments. One can't help thinking that the idea of being "Kedoshim," or as Rashi translates it "Perushim" – separate and distinct – is not only our mandate from God, but a sort of ideal. It's not just a good idea, but it is the formula for being a "light unto the nations" and a model for the world of what a Godly existence can and ought to look like.
Revere your parents, observe the Sabbath. Remember God. When you bring and consume a sacrificial offering, don't let there be leftovers – you've got to finish what you've undertaken to complete, within the allotted time.
Leave over portions of your income – whether it's from your literal produce or whatever you produce – for the poor. [A family I know inspired us to keep a separate checking account which we use solely for charitable purposes. Any income is subject to its own deduction, transferred to this account. It makes giving (whatever percentage a person chooses) so much easier. The money is set aside for this purpose. This simple move has made giving a liberating experience, as opposed to what might sometimes feel like a difficult experience.]
Don't steal, don't deny a rightful claim, don't lie to one another, don't swear falsely using God's name. Don't withhold what you owe to your neighbor. Pay people on time.
Don't curse the deaf or trick those who are blind. These two instructions could literally refer to people afflicted with these disabilities. On a deeper level, it could be an instruction not to taunt or mislead people who will not "get it," or who are unaware that what you might be doing, which may be in the guise of being helpful, is actually harmful. A person needs to be morally upright, and tricking people who are weak or unaware is, simply put, an act of cruelty.
A judge must be blind to economic circumstances, not to favor the poor or the wealthy, or the "important," but to judge on the facts alone. There is flexibility in certain areas of Jewish law to look at the specific circumstance and situation, but when it comes to money, especially others' money, the law must do what is right. Judge people fairly.
Don't gossip. Don't be a tale-bearer. Don't stand by when your neighbor's blood is being shed. These two commandments might very well be connected to one another as a reminder that if you find yourself in a situation where someone is being slandered or being cut down or having a reputation be tarnished by ill-speak, it is important to stand up, to defend, and to try to twist the conversation in a positive way. To bring the "Kaf z'chut" – the benefit of the doubt – to the forefront, or even to contradict what is being said. And if everyone is against you because they disagree, make it clear that you will not be party to such a conversation that serves no purpose other than to destroy another human being. This is "not standing idly by when blood is being shed."
Don't hate your brother in your heart, admonish your neighbor – these all follow the same line of thinking. Don't take revenge nor bear a grudge...
All of this culminates with the Golden Rule, to love your neighbor.
There are many interpretations as to how to fulfill the Golden Rule. I present four interpretations for your contemplation.
Chizkuni suggests "You should love to do him a favor, just as you would love if he’d do you a favor." [Maimonides (Laws of Mourning 14:1) expresses a similar sentiment.]
Otzar Midrashim suggests to desire for one’s friend all that he loves and desires for himself.
The Seforno quips to "Love things about your friend that you’d love if you were in his shoes."
R Samson Raphael Hirsch summarizes proper treatment of a friend or neighbor, saying "We have to love and respect all that comes to our friends – ask about his health and well-being, be happy about his success and sad about his failures, help out when it is needed, try to relieve him of his difficulties or comfort him when he is in [emotional] pain…"
There are many more mitzvot and many more suggestions for proper behavior and "above and beyond" behavior.
May we find the strength to read, contemplate, and apply as many of the Torah's teachings to our own lives, to improve our own selves and create more wholesome atmospheres among those with whom we work as well as with the people we love.