Our rabbis taught: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses. Micah reduced them to three: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’’
Isaiah based all the mitzvot upon two of them: “Keep justice and righteousness.”
Amos saw one guiding principle upon which all the six hundred and thirteen are founded: “Seek Me and live.”
Habakkuk expounded the Torah on the basis of a single thought: “The righteous shall live by their faith.”
Akiba taught: The great principle of the Torah is expressed in the Mitzvah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But Ben Azzai found a principle even more fundamental: “This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in the divine image.”
And Hillel summed up the Torah in this maxim: What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah - the rest is commentary: you must go and study it.
Why was there an attempt to create such a concise list of basic Jewish values? I believe that it was an exercise in prioritizing what is essential to Jewish life. Note that the statements that the rabbis cited are about ethics more than about ritual, although many Jewish observances do express and illustrate our values.
So Judaism believes in practicing justice, mercy, humility, mutual respect and consideration, righteousness, and seeing and seeking the divine in each other. Those values, taken together, require us to look at all people as part of one human family. They challenge us to break down barriers and build bridges. They direct us to open up channels of dialogue when possible. They lead to the rabbinic declaration that, “When you save one soul, it is as if you have saved the whole world; and when you destroy one soul, it is as if you have destroyed the whole world.”
The Torah portion for this week finds the Israelites mired in their predicament of bondage in Egypt, working hard under harsh treatment from their Egyptian taskmasters. They had places to live, they received food to eat, but their lives and the conditions in which they lived and under which they worked were not ideal. It was so difficult for them that when Moses offered them hope, they couldn’t believe his promises of liberation. Their notions of the possibility of freedom, equality, engaging in personal decision making, and following their own faith were all but gone. The opening chapters of Exodus, alongside a portrayal of the power of God, demonstrated how oppression and subjugation of some people under others who possessed temporary power violated basic human decency. This tale of slavery led to the far-reaching acceptance of all fellow human beings in Exodus 23 as expressed in this verse: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The historicity of this experience is not as important as the impression it has left on anyone who sees this passage as sacred scripture. We are commanded to be open and welcoming, and to overcome the fear of people who are different by creating opportunities for the so-called “stranger” to become a valued partner in community life.
In the last few days, it is not just the tragic events in and around Paris that have demonstrated a lack of respect for other human beings, where power and ideology trumped basic human decency and mutual consideration. The recent bombing at the NAACP offices in Colorado Springs didn’t injure anyone, but it was a violation of communal peace that reminded citizens of all backgrounds that respect for property and for the ideas of freedom and equality are fundamental to a civil society. Our hearts go out to the NAACP and to the citizens of Colorado Springs in the hope that they will understand the need to be partners and neighbors rather than strangers.
And I have that hope as well for citizens of Paris and all around France. For me, it’s not just about the freedom of speech issue, which is important. It is about how to respond to those with whom we may vehemently disagree. People who see each other as partners use their words to challenge each other. For example, as much as I was angry about a notorious family and church of picketers in Topeka, Kansas focusing on me and others with untrue accusations, ridicule and hatred, I always answered them indirectly with words that reflected the values embodied in the reading we shared earlier. I tried not to make any such accusations in return, but, rather, to state positively what I believe.
Those who combine faith with a desire for power and revenge for what they perceive others have said about them or done to them and use violence rather than words in response often twist their own beliefs well beyond their original intention. When that occurs, potential partners and neighbors become strangers who become enemies who need not be seen as human beings any longer. This has happened all too many times in human history, and it saddens me that it still happens today, not just in France, or Colorado Springs, but in our own community from time to time.
And I have to add, after the murder of hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris today by an associate of the perpetrators of the original attack, we now know the nature of their hatred was as we suspected. It was focused on all of the people they considered to be their enemies: some, because of what they did, and others, specifically, Jews, simply because of who they are. Our hearts go out to the French Jewish community in particular and to the country of France with prayer for some semblance of calm and eventual harmony that can overshadow and dispel hatred.
Such actions across the globe and in our own country may make us feel that we have no choice but to despair of the possibility of a human community based on justice, fairness, equality, freedom, fellowship and peace. We could become like the Israelite slaves, who couldn’t hear, at first, a voice offering them a feeling of hope. However, we need not be like them, because Judaism teaches us to be optimistic. It is not that we should wait for a leader like Moses to come, but that we should be leaders ourselves like Moses, who believe in those values that the rabbis cited so long ago as central to making our lives meaningful and complete. So may we always be open to hearing those voices of hope inside of us, which can guide us to work for cooperation, partnership, and peace.