Rabbi Akiva taught the greatest principle of the Torah is in this morning’s Torah portion: “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” If we were to sum […]
Rabbi Akiva taught the greatest principle of the Torah is in this morning’s Torah portion: “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.” If we were to sum up Judaism, many say it is this sentence: v’ahavta le’recha kamocha.
But what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Different interpretations lead us in a variety of directions, but today I want to focus on the explanation of the Hasidic master, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. He shared that he learned the true meaning of loving one’s neighbor sitting at a bar in Russia, overhearing a conversation between two friends.
The first asked the other, “Do you love me?”
The friend replied, “Of course I love you.”
The first man then asked, “Do you know what hurts me?”
The friend responded, “How could I know that?”
The first friend replied, “Well, if you don’t know what hurts me, then how can you say that you truly love me?”
For Rabbi Moshe Leib, to love your neighbor means to care so deeply and to know them so well that you know what pains them. It is a definition that stretches us, for it calls on us to truly know those who surround us.
This week, in the aftermath of the guilty verdict in the case of police officer Derek Chauvin for causing the death of George Floyd, I believe that we can turn to Rabbi Moshe Leib’s understanding of loving our neighbor to guide us. We need to seek to understand the suffering and pain that is so real and visceral. For it is in that understanding that we find the seeds of change.
This past year we have been listening, studying and feeling realities about racism in ways we may not have done in the past. Our eyes and hearts are open. We have listened to stories of people suffering the indignity of being approached with suspicion, and of the pain that comes from being in a system that treats them differently. We are listening as people of color describe the pain of talking with children about how to handle themselves when they are pulled over for fear they will be killed. We are painfully aware of the truth that Black Americans and other people of color are treated differently, every day in so many ways.
We are seeing and feeling the pain of Asian Americans as they suffer in ways that are sadly too familiar to us as Jews.
We are seeing and feeling the pain of the LGBTQ community as they are targeted and often rejected.
We have also heard the pain of honest police officers who devote their lives to protecting us, that they are unfairly lumped together with unethical officers whose actions they abhor. In fact, they are passionately seeking to police with compassion and kindness, only to be characterized with derision.
We know our own pain as antisemitism rises.
And we know the dignity and progress that comes when we are heard with care and responded to with determination to never tolerate antisemitism.
Moshe Leib’s teaching that loving our neighbor means to understand their pain defines how we respond. Listen to the interpretation of love your neighbor by Rabbi Meir Lev ben Yechiel Michael, known as Malbim. He teaches that to love our neighbor means to act in ways which protect anyone from harm and do that which brings benefit. He specifically points out that by acting in ways that protect the bodily health and economic well-being of others, that is how we love our neighbor. Our hearts open to the pain of others, which leads us to reflect deeply about how to bring about real change and then to act.
This past Sunday, 60 Minutes aired an important episode exploring the connection between public health and race. We have known for some time that on nearly every measure of health, African Americans are more prone to serious disease and premature death.
Why is that? A piece of it is poverty, unequal access to high quality health care and different treatment within the system, but the eye-opening claim of the episode was that the experience of racism itself plays a key role in the health of people of color around the world. Professor David Williams, a professor of Public Health at Harvard has conducted rigorous studies around the world documenting the connection between experiences of racism and public health.
He created the Everyday Discrimination Scale which measure a variety of daily occurrences: being treated with less courtesy or respect, receiving poorer service in a store or restaurant, people acting as if they’re afraid of you. The test measures all the little ways dignity is chipped away on a daily basis. And what the study found is that people who score high on the Everyday Discrimination Scale have a broad range of adverse health conditions: high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental health. Dr. Williams concludes is that the health of Black Americans is less connected to economic well-being or level of education than it is to the daily indignities they suffer.
He cites a study of black graduates of Yale. You would expect that their degree and their ability to succeed economically would reduce their health problems, but it didn’t. Something else is going on, and the research is suggesting that it is the cumulative effect of racism. The author likens it to a drop of water falling from a rooftop to a concrete sidewalk. It is the constant drip, drip, drip of water that causes the sidewalk to break. It is the daily stressors of subtle and overt racism that are negatively impacting the health of the African American community.
Dr. Williams’ work calls upon us to truly see what is going on around us, and then be agents of change. He calls upon us to live the value of v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha/love your neighbor as yourself to bring about real change. What does he ask us to do? Dr. Williams teaches that the key is to think of how to improve living conditions of individuals, through housing, food security, and neighborhood.
So how do you do that? One issue is housing, creating living conditions that lift people up. Connected to that is access to healthy foods. For years, many African American communities were food deserts with no nearby grocery stores. The grocery chains felt those communities lacked the disposable income to support a supermarket, resulting in no place to get healthy food. Noting this reality, activists are banding together to open small markets. One such market, Carver Market in South Atlanta, has been a game changer. Not only does it provide affordable access to healthy food, benefiting health and nutrition, but it also provides employment opportunities. Little changes like a market ripple in terms of their impact. Carver Market created a sense of neighborhood and connection. Last June, when there was a shooting a half mile from the Carver Market, we saw what has become too commonplace and absolutely unacceptable, vandalism and destruction. The windows at the market were smashed and graffiti was spray painted across the storefront. But that wasn’t the whole story. After the vandalism, neighbors came together to sweep up the glass, scrub off the graffiti and board up the windows.
To love your neighbor means to see pain and suffering, to build bridges of love and connection and to act. It is time to roll up our sleeves, to stop talking at and begin talking to, to start with being and bringing about the change we know needs to happen. Join our Social Justice group seeking to address issues of housing. Help our Social Action group make sandwiches for those living with food insecurity. Join our Women’s Connection group, where women from New Beginnings Community Church and CBJ are creating connections and vision as they gather. Tomorrow, they are meeting with several Chiefs of Police for an honest and frank exchange. It is the way to change.
We can create a different narrative in our country. Out of the ocean of tears, we can create a different reality by living v’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha/love, connection and hope. It will change everything! Let it define your heart and your deeds.