Now Go and Study (Ki Teitzei)

Back in the first century, Hillel was asked to distill all of Judaism into one sentence. A brilliant rabbi and scholar, Hillel thought about Mitzvot, theology, customs, history and culture and came up with the famous teaching that has become a foundational principle of Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.

This short statement seems obvious. It doesn't require much explanation. Unlike so many other Jewish opinions, Hillel's dictum is ubiquitously agreed upon by most of us - regardless of Jewish denomination, observance or age ... in fact, it may be the one Jewish mandate that we all agree upon!

But sometimes, we look at a general statement such as this without thinking about it in specific, practical situations.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.

Who qualifies as a neighbor? Is it limited to our tight-knit community? Is someone a neighbor if they are outside in our circle of family and friends?

If a neighbor is any human being, Hillel's statement becomes a bit more difficult. In this case, a neighbor can be not only someone that we may not like, it may be someone that has hurt or offended us. Are those kinds of people considered neighbors?

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In this week's Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, Moses seems to foresee Hillel's teaching. While speaking to the Israelite people, he tells them: You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.

Despite everything that happened to us in the land of Egypt, we are commanded to show empathy to an Egyptian. Even though the Egyptians abhorred us, we are commanded to do otherwise. This is the sina qua non - the prime demonstration - of Hillel's dictum.

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Tonight is the 10th day of Elul.

During these 30 days, Judaism challenges us to confront the specifics of Hillel's message. To make an extended metaphor, how will we treat the Egyptians in our life? We all agree that we should treat our neighbors well, but Elul forces us to act on the difficult realities of this philosophic generality.

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I have to confess - when I started this brief d'var, I only shared a part of Hillel's famous quotation. When asked to distill Judaism in one statement, Hillel said: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Too-often, we only quote the first part of his words. The rest of it, however, is just as important. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.

It's important because if we only concentrate on the first part of the statement, we will be letting ourselves off the hook far too easily. We won't necessarily do the hard work of t'suvah, confronting the issues that surround forgiveness, empathy and reconciliation. The devil may be in the details, but God is in the details as well. It is within the details of the Torah - within this exact Torah portion - that Hillel's words become the important challenge that they are.

It's only when we go and study that we realize what these days of Elul are all about. They are meant for us to mature, to learn, to grow and to treat others (and ourselves) better.

So on this 10th day of Elul, let us concentrate on the full spectrum of meaning that stems from Hillel's words.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Michelangelo, a German photographer and an Israeli Poet walk into Rosh Hashanah services ... (Rosh Hashanah Evening 5774)

Justice and Justice Again (Shoftim)