”Last week in the Torah we got the big ten; the Ten Commandments that have shaped all of western civilization’s ideas about what it means to be a good Jew and good human being. This week we get some pretty famous and important laws too. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life,” for example. Laws about capital punishment. Laws about feeding the hungry, protecting the widow, the stranger and the poor.
But the truth is, this week we also get a lot of laws in the Torah that wouldn’t even make it into Division Three let alone the Big Ten. Laws about potholes, about what happens if someone’s tooth gets knocked out in a fight. Laws about how not to cook a goat. Laws about interest rates, sorcery, bestiality, roadkill, and even what we are supposed to do if we see our enemy’s overloaded donkey struggling to stand up. Thou shalt not murder. I get. Thou shalt not steal, honor your father and mother, thou shalt not covet—I get. But helping the neighbor you don’t like pick up his overloaded donkey—really? Is that what Torah is all about? In a word, yes. In fact, that might well be what the entire Torah is about.
Today I received two emails and was on one zoom with a group of Temple members expressing real concern and pain at the way other Temple members had been treating them because of their differing opinions about Covid, school reopening, and more. Today was by no means exceptional. On Wednesday I was on a zoom with a preeminent scholar of American Jewish history. In our conversation, he made an observation he called “immutable.” Namely, that the American Jewish community always has and always will reflect the ethos of the larger American context. If we are an angry and divided nation, if the majoritarian culture encourages vulgarity and meanness on social media, there will be anger and division, vulgarity and meanness in the Jewish community too. It must have been the same 3,000 years ago and hence the Torah’s reminder that we have obligations, even to people we do not like, to help them with their or even their animal’s burden.
Most of us know the famous story from the Talmud about the pagan who asked the great Rabbi Hillel to explain all of Judaism to him while standing on one foot—not much time to explain an entire religious tradition. Hillel summarized the entire Torah by saying, “Do not do unto others what is hurtful to you. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” The essence of being a Jew is simply to treat other people as we would wish to be treated by others and by God—with midat harachamin—a measure of mercy and compassion.
Religious historian Karen Armstrong notes “Compassion is central to every major religion in the world. Every single one of them has evolved their own version of the golden rule. Sometimes it comes in a positive version –‘always treat all others as you'd like to be treated yourself,’ and equally important is the negative version – ‘don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ Look into your own heart. Discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anybody else. Often people don't really want to be compassionate, she concludes, “people often want to be right instead.”
One of the very first prayers every Jew learns is the V’ahavta. Most of us know its imperative that we are supposed to love God “with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.” Think about what is missing from that list. Nowhere does it say we are to love God with our minds—our intellect. Serving God with our intellect would be expected of a people that value study as passionately as Jews. Why is intellect missing from the list of the ways in which we are commanded to serve God? Because our ancestors believed that real thought, real intention, real faith, real meaning, real humanity comes not from the head, but from the heart. Jews think from the heart.
Here’s how intuitive our ancestors were. Research now indicates that we actually do think with our hearts. Scientists have demonstrated that certain chemicals released from the heart are responsible for stimulating the part of our brain that makes compassionate choices. When we are at our best, our most human and humane, we really do think with our hearts.
Some of you know that I call the couch in my office “The Couch of Tears.” People often sit there to pour out their sorrows, to weep, to ask “why?” When it is their marriage that is the source of those tears, the answer to why is sometimes very simple. Somewhere in their journey together they just stopped being kind to each other. Do you want to stay married? Be kind. Do you want to hold on to your kids even when they are adults themselves? Be kind. Do you want to be close to your brothers and sisters? Do you want to have friends? Do you want to be respected and successful in business? Do you want to be proud of who you are—who you really are? Be kind. Think with your heart.
My friend Rabbi Ronne Friedman’s son Jesse died by suicide years ago. Here’s a part of the eulogy he gave to honor his own son: “We are brokenhearted. We cannot hide our brokenness. Let me tell you what we know; each of you would willingly give us a piece of your heart if it would help to make ours whole. We know, we know. For us, that is the only intimation that the laws of gravity might one day be restored.”
A piece of our hearts, willingly given, the heart of another gratefully received, the ebb and flow of friendship and love, care and kindness; kindness is the only thing that enables any of us to go on….
Each year I am asked to deliver a speech to our Brawerman graduates. In order to prepare, I usually meet with the class and ask them a simple question, which is, “What is the single most important thing you have learned here?” By the third or fourth answer, I am usually fighting back tears. Why? Because each of them in their own way says virtually the same thing—the most important thing they learn at our Temple is kindness--to be a welcoming, thoughtful, considerate, caring, kind person. Not one of them says that the most important thing they learn at Wilshire Boulevard Temple is math, science, history, grammar, vocabulary, geography, or technology—and they are right.
Consider the Talmud, Tractate Niddah, page 30b. There you will find the sages imagining what happens when a Jewish baby is born. They say if the baby does not promise a visiting angel to be kind, he or she is not allowed out into the world. Which is why, each year I remind those beautiful children full of promise before they matriculate to new schools with fast kids, fast cars, drugs, cheating, drinking, competition, gossip, materialism and shallow values, that no matter how many facts they have learned at Temple, if they are not prepared to hold fast to the most important truth they have learned—they cannot truly go out into the world. That truth is the obligation we all have to remain a kind, caring, humane human being regardless of the larger ethos in which we live.
We are all so overburdened right now with so much. It seems the Torah’s reminder this Shabbat is the perfect one. Because reaching out to ease another’s burden, especially when it is someone with whom we do not agree or even like, is as big as a law or a person can be.