Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to the entire community of Israel and say to them: You must be holy because I, Hashem your L-rd, am holy’. Vayikra/Lev. 19: 1-2
These are the opening words of this week’s parsha and they are followed by numerous instructions outlining how holiness is achieved. Many of the verses in this week’s reading have to do with interpersonal relationships for they are in fact the predominant testing ground of our sanctification. We are told, for instance, that we must not lie to one another, nor engage in gossip, nor place a stumbling block in front of the blind. According to verse 18, we must not take our own revenge, neither are we to bear a grudge against another. But the verse doesn’t stop there.
For the ending of verse 18 says this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself. I am Hashem.’ This IS the Torah encapsulated.
Whatever you would not want to happen to you, do not do to others. Whatever is distasteful to you, do not do to someone else. If you do not wish to be robbed, do not steal; if you do not wish to be humiliated, do not embarrass someone else; if you do not want to be slandered, do not slander others and so on. It’s really not difficult to understand, is it?
Note that the verse ends with the words, ‘I am Hashem’ which teaches us something very important. The highest motive for obeying the commandments of Torah is to honor the Holy One of Israel. We choose to love our neighbor as ourself, not based on his or her intrinsic worth — though every human being is of great value; we choose to love not because the other is lovable necessarily; we choose to love because Hashem is our G-d and He has commanded us to do so.
It is His express will that we should imitate Him and thereby achieve a state of holiness. This means learning that at times we are to speak up and at other times, to be silent; at times we are to give and at other times we are to receive — humbly and gratefully. Holiness is nothing more and nothing less than growing in our ability to be a mirror image of Hashem’s goodness, kindness and love. It is said that anyone who keeps this commandment to love his neighbor as he loves himself is considered to be keeping the entire Torah.
We are also forbidden to seek out mediums or fortunetellers; we are warned against various kinds of mixtures and commanded to avoid sexual sins. In the midst of these prohibitions, there is a positive commandment to show respect to older people — which includes showing respect towards those ‘older’ in the ways of Torah, even if they happen to be younger in chronological age. Devout Jews stand when a Torah scholar enters the room because of this specific commandment.
The practice of showing respect to one’s elders is not as widespread as it was in times past. Some years ago it was unheard of that a child or a teenager would address an older person by their first name alone. A title of respect always accompanied the person’s name, such as Aunt Sarah or Uncle David. If there was no relationship, the terms ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ were often used. Today these practices are considered odd in many places, even archaic.
It used to be that if an older person boarded a public bus, young people would immediately rise to give their seat to the newcomer. This still happens on a fairly regular basis on the buses of Israel but I have traveled extensively in my life and have seen this act of respect largely lacking in other countries, whether on public transportation, in shops and supermarkets, or in airport terminals. Most tragically, the general lack of respect that has invaded society at large has spilled over into the arena of religion and spirituality as well.
To show respect to those older than we are is a commandment of Hashem’s Holy Torah. It is not just an ‘old-fashioned’ practice; it is one of the marks of a person who is serious about honoring Hashem and living according to His Torah. To show respect towards elders is to show respect towards Hashem Himself.
In Tune with Torah this week = examining ourselves regarding our commitment to specific commandments such as the ones outlined in this week’s parsha; to honestly assess our own attitudes and behavior with reference to Hashem’s instructions given here and where necessary, to repent and commit to improve.