This week's Torah portion carries within it one of the most profound Talmudic arguments within all of Judaism.
Particularly in these times of political fracture, we're asked, “Whom do you consider your neighbor?”
So here's a question. Which do you regard as the most important line in the entire Torah?
Shema Yisrael—”Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One”—that's a good choice. If you choose any of the Ten Commandments, you're in good company.
But when you think about it, one verse radiates brightest from the pages of the Torah, and we will read it in synagogue this Shabbat.
“Love your fellow-or neighbor-as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Does it get any better than that? Versions of this verse, known by scholars as the Ethic of Reciprocity, exist in virtually every culture, from ancient India to Persia, Greece, Rome, and across all major religions, across all continents.
One of our great Sages, Rabbi Akiva (50-135 CE) is quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud as saying that this verse is “the most important rule in the Torah.”
But there was one Sage who disagreed.
The second-century scholar Ben Azzai took issue with Rabbi Akiva's declaration. He noted that the idea of “fellowship” should not be determined by humanity. His premise was that human beings are flawed.
Ben Azzai turned back the pages of the Torah to Genesis 5:1 and declared “This is the record of Adam's line” as the Torah's most important principle.
In other words, he posited, we are all descended from one sacred couple, Adam and Eve. No one is better or holier than the other. We are all related. We are all fellows. Why allow the word “neighbor” to potentially divide us?
In ancient times, great Sages like Hillel and Shammai would vigorously debate various legal topics, but they did so L'Shem Shamayim—in the name of heaven.
They were trying to perfect the world for all. Yet these days, the idea of “us” and “them” has drawn many into the mire of disharmony.
Over the past few years I have observed too many family members no longer speaking to each other. I have witnessed friends no longer communicating.
Where are we going?
Indeed, if we are to follow Rabbi Akiva's view, echoed by so many Jewish sages, we must ask ourselves how we define who our fellow is.
Is it only an American? Is it only a person who prays the way we do? What about those suffering or wandering in other countries? Should we give in to cynicism and watch anyone who isn't us with a wary eye?
Recently, a close friend — in her mid-seventies — shared with me the story of the breakdown of a friendship she had enjoyed since she was twelve years old.
“We were talking about our lives, then one of us said something about the news, and before we knew it - we hung up on each other.” My heart sank.
But I replied, “Perhaps it's important to call your friend back and say “I value our friendship more than the politics which we cannot change. Can we agree to disagree and continue our friendship?”
Perhaps it's time we began listening to each other more, and attempted to establish more common ground.
I continue to be inspired by the actions of our Hebrew school children who in recent years have raised money for victims of a Japanese tsunami and an earthquake in Haiti.
We have raised money to repair the school roof of a village in El Salvador. Our students have taught us that those who live outside of our country are our neighbors too.
This past week, our congregation marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, over a three-day period.
One of the most moving events was a spaghetti dinner and presentation organized by Liam Dall, one of our post-bar mitzvah students, and an Eagle Scout candidate, who during the past few weeks has raised more than $3,000 to erect a memorial at the entrance of our synagogue to remember those 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust.
Liam is concerned. He says he never wants anyone to forget what unchecked hatred can do, and he is inspiring not only adults but also his fellow students and Scouts to stand on guard against bullying, hatred, and diminishing the dignity of others.
Liam is right. These are dangerous times. While our physical lives are not in jeopardy, the very foundation of our society-free speech and respect-is shaking.
If we continue to shut each other out-if we continue stereotype others or diminish the perspectives of our neighbors-then we too have embarked on a treacherous journey.
I believe Ben Azzai was right. We are all neighbors - children of God, and that it is more important that we pursue peace than attempt to impose our imperfect truths on others.
Yes, honoring your fellow is vital to a healthy and respectful society. But humans are flawed. It is not up to us to declare who is in and who is out.
The Torah teaches us we are all on a journey together, and that — according to Isaiah —the Jewish people are here to serve as a light unto others.
Are we shining that light, or are we succumbing to darkness?
So many families and friends have learned to navigate these challenging times. But so many others have not.
Is it that important to be considered right? Or is our common journey-to make ourselves into something better-more important?
Is it time to make that call to a family member or friend and ask, “Can we agree to disagree on the things we can't resolve?
“Can we agree to be fellows once more?”
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman