I’m sure you’ve heard the famous story about the young man who demanded that Rabbi Hillel teach him “all of Torah while standing on one foot.” The tale goes that he asked this question of Rabbi Hillel’s contemporary, Rabbi Shammai, who in his strict regard for Jewish law, scoffed at the request and turned the young man away. Rabbi Hillel, in his largesse of spirit, answered “What is hateful to you do not do to another. The rest is commentary; go and learn it.” This aphorism has been inverted in many religious traditions and turned into what we know as The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; but this is not Rabbi Hillel’s interpretation of Torah! Specifically, it removes our own preferences from the mix, and strips us each down to our basic human rights: what would you like to avoid (arguably: pain, loss, suffering, anguish, etc…).
Our Torah portion this week, Ki Teitzei, continues Moses’ recounting of the law to the Israelite people before they set off into the land they are about to inhabit. It is the most grab-bag-potpourri-miscellaneous of the legal compendia, as it covers everything from family and marital relations to domestic laws regarding property, animals, clothing, homes and vineyards. These chapters are peppered with laws that we would find no longer binding (such as the injunction against mixing flax & wool into a single garment), leaving us to search for those that continue to hold meaning for us (like the reminder to look after the “stranger, fatherless and widow,”). Particularly striking are the laws reminding us that we have a responsibility towards our neighbors, both those we know and those we do not know.
We are part of a vast, interconnected world. If we can take away one lesson from this week’s parsha, it is Hillel’s warning against spiteful and hateful behavior. Judaism’s guidelines to us, vast though they may be, can simply be distilled into this one word of advice: think about your actions, and make sure you don’t do to another that which would cause you suffering. Or, more flippantly and colloquially said: don’t be a jerk.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman