Saturday, March 17, 2018

Prophetic Teens

A few days ago, it came to my attention that some of the teens at our synagogue were upset with me. They felt that I hadn’t been publically supportive of their participation in the March For Our Lives. As you probably know, the march was organized as a reaction to the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just over a month ago. About a dozen of our teens are joining some others from this area to head up to DC to join in what is shaping up to be a historic march. To make this trip more accessible to anyone who wanted to go, they also ran a GoFundMe, with all money raised going to subsidize the trip.

From what I heard, at least some of them feel that I should have spoken about the march and about their fundraising from the pulpit, and that I should have encouraged more donations in that way, too. There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t, but that isn’t the point—even if I was right on some level to not speak about this (at least in that forum), they are also right that I should have done so, because what they’re doing is so deeply important.

This shooting, and the movement which has been growing in its aftermath, has had a profound effect on some of our teens. For one thing, this was geographically close, which always seems to make tragedies feel more personal. But, more importantly, this shooting was close to our kids in other ways, too. Many of the students at Stoneman participate in NFTY-STR, our youth group region, and some of them also attend Camp Coleman, where some of our teens attend. A family who used to attend Beth Am send their child there. The point is that some of our teens personally know people who attend that school. Some of them were friends with one of the victims, Alyssa Alhadeff z”l. This is personal. And so, they are finding themselves deeply committed to this new, student-led effort to get something done to make our schools, and our society, safer. This isn’t just another march to these youth; this is bigger than that.

What we’re seeing—from our kids, and from the leaders of this new movement—is sacred work. And, I’m not using that term lightly, or generically. I think that we’re watching a group suddenly find themselves in the role of Prophets, whether or not they realize it. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Building Holiness

Vayidabeir Adonai el Mosheh leimor: dabeir el bnei Yisrael vayikchu lee terumah m’ate kol ish asher yidbeinu leebo, tikchu terumatee. The Eternal One spoke to Moses and said: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.

That’s how this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, begins. With a commandment from God, through Moses, for everyone whose heart is so moved to bring gifts. These gifts can be gold, silver, fine linen, animal skins, and a host of other precious objects. And why do we need to bring these gifts? “v’Asu lee mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham--And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

It’s possible that, more than any other single verse in the entire Torah, these words contain the ultimate, true essence of what Judaism is about. Of what we’re trying to do by leading Jewish lives. The ultimate commandment, our ultimate responsibility, is to take from the best of what we have, bring it all together as a community, and together try to create something. Try to create something holy, and in doing so, allow the presence of God to dwell among us. And, of course, were not just talking about physical buildings here — anything that we “build,” anything we create can, if built properly, make it easier for us to experience the presence of God. It’s pointed out by sages and teachers throughout the generations (including by myself, quite often) that the Torah doesn’t tell to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell in it. We are told to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell among us. Possibly even within us. It isn’t that God needs a house. It’s that, by trying to build something for God, we evoke, find, or possibly even make possible God’s presence in the world, and in our lives.

It’s always been a bit of a contradiction in Judaism. On one hand, God is everywhere – that’s the first thing most of us learn about God. There is no place without God’s presence. On the other hand, we build special, sacred places. We build sanctuaries in the desert, Temples in Jerusalem, and synagogues all over the world. Usually, we understand those holy places to be for us, not for God. God doesn’t need a special building — after all, God really is everywhere. But we are limited, imperfect human beings, and it’s much easier for us to think about God, to see God, to feel God, maybe even to believe in God, in some places, rather than others.

Some sages, however, are willing to go at least a half-step further. Some say that when a place is unholy, when a place is broken, when a place is vile, it’s as if God can’t, or won’t, be there. It’s as if there is actually a place where God isn’t. Or, maybe it’s not “as if.” Maybe God really won’t go to those places. In the end, I’m not so interested in the metaphysics – in the underlying, objective reality here. At the end of the day, from our point of view, God not being somewhere, and our complete inability to see God in a place, are pretty much the exact same thing. If a tree falls in the forest, and all that. And so, we’re commanded to build something holy, and in doing so, to try to bring God’s presence into our world, and into our lives.

I’ve been thinking about these verses, and this teaching, and this idea of building holiness, especially since Wednesday afternoon. As I’m sure everyone here knows, on Wednesday, 17 people were killed in yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were murdered in just a few moments. They were: Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang. One person, whose name I will not utter, whose heart was filled with some toxic mix of anger, and hatred, and evil, and sickness, murdered them, destroyed the lives of their families, friends, and loved ones, and God only knows what he did to the survivors — they’ll be living with this for the rest of their lives, God help them.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, but with a new force and clarity, and a new import, that one of the fundamental, inescapable differences between creating something holy, and destroying something holy, is that the latter is so, so much easier. It is frighteningly easy to destroy. It is so terribly difficult to create. And it is especially difficult to create something holy. If you like pithy formulations, you can find one in Schopenhauer’s Law of Entropy: if you put a spoonful of wine into a barrel full of sewage, you get sewage. If you put a spoonful of sewage into a barrel full of wine, you get sewage. A little bit of awful, a little bit of evil, can destroy so much good.

It doesn’t matter what level of society, what granularity we’re looking at, the maxim holds true. It’s true with people in our lives — it’s easier to tear them down than to build them up. It’s easier with institutions — one troublemaker or kvetcher can undermine a place so effectively that a whole team of well-meaning, positive people can barely keep up. It’s true in politics — it’s easier to ruin people’s lives than to help them. It’s easier to point out the problems with someone else’s proposed ideas then to create a better plan yourself. And, It’s easier to kill 17 people then it is to stop one sick, awful man getting a gun and going to his old school.

It’s a bit of an aside, but there is a debate about Creation, at least as told in our Torah. The majority of commentators hold that God created the world out of nothing. But, there are a few who contend that God actually had some raw material to work with — that there was some primordial chaos which served as the raw materials of Creation. I actually lean more towards the “Creation out of chaos” view. In part because it’s actually truer to the text, I’d say. But, more importantly, it reflects an important teaching. Chaos is the natural state of everything. Chaos is the given. It took a Divine effort to hold back the chaos, to bring in some order. And, it’s not over — the chaos is always trying to creep back in. So, it takes an ongoing Divine effort, or at least a divine-sized effort, to keep it at bay. Sometimes, it seems, nothing can.

But, that’s exactly why we’re needed. That’s why God needs us. Again, I don’t pretend to be able to really explain the metaphysical reality. I don’t know if God can’t continue to hold back the chaos, or God chose to let some chaos through for us to deal with, or maybe if God just got sick of being the only One fighting the fight. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just know that, a very long time ago, God came to us and said, “Please. Take what you’ve got. Take the best of what you’ve got. Take it from anyone who’s got it, and from anyone who’s heart so moves them to give it, and build something. Build something holy.”

It’s hard. It’s so damn hard. It’s hard to know what our gifts are, and where they can best be used. It’s hard to work together, to coordinate our gifts, to jostle over who gets to work on one part and all that. It’s really hard to work with people we may not like so much sometimes, and especially to recognize and appreciate their gifts. It’s hard to sustain the effort, especially when the walls of our building project seem to be crumbling against the chaos from the very moment we put them up. It’s hard, but it’s the only way. If the only way to build something of value. It’s the only way to build something holy. It’s the only way to make a place for God in our world, or in our lives.

Vayidabeir Adonai el Mosheh leimor: dabeir el bnei Yisrael vyikchu lee terumah m’ate kol ish asher yidbeinu leebo, tikchu terumatee. The Eternal One spoke to Moses and said: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…v’Asu lee mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham--And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

Cain yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

This is a version of the sermon I gave on February 16th, 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

To Grow In Kindness

Yesterday, I was having lunch with two of my oldest and dearest friends. I've known them both since our early High School years, so we go way back. While paying the bill and figuring out the tip, one of them joked that his simple mental math skills, never his strong suit, have actually started to get worse.

"Well, you have to realize something," I ventured. "We're 46. That means that, in every conceivable facet of our lives, we've peaked. This is it. We'll never get better. Physically, mentally, whatever--we're as close to perfection as we can ever dream of getting. Hopefully it's a gentle slope, but it's all downhill from here."

At that point, they wondered why, exactly, they decided to spend time with me. But, they didn't actually argue...

But, I did thrown in an exception. I said, "Except, I guess, we can grow in kindness*." Maybe a bit pretentious for the moment, but I was trying to find a bright side.

* "To grow in kindness" is not my phrase, but I can't remember from where or from whom I'm stealing it.

I didn't tell them this background, but on the drive to see them, I had been listening to a podcast from "Crooked Conversations." This one was a conversation between host Ana Marie Cox and ABC News’ Dan Harris about meditation. Apparently, Harris has become a pretty well-known evangelist for meditating, and he's been effective in part because he's not what most people think of as a typical meditator--very few mentions of "psychic energy" or "souls," and more curse words than most of these types of books deliver. Worth checking out if you're interested in meditation, but get turned off by the ethereal, new-agey tone of a lot of those books.

Anyway, one of the points that Harris makes is that, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, most of us assume that our personalities are more or less set in stone. Certainly, once we become adults, we are who we are. If not completely, then awfully close to it. Oh, sure, we can learn things, in terms of knowledge, skills, and the like. But, our basic, core personalities, our personal qualities, are really not malleable any more (if they ever were). We're as generous as we're ever going to be. We're as kind, as forgiving, as patient as we're ever going to be. And, maybe more to the point, we didn't get to choose these qualities, any more than we chose our height or our hairlines. I might wish I were kinder, but that's just wishing. I can pretend to be kinder, I guess. But, at my core, kindness is something I have (or don't have) in some predetermined measure. There just isn't much to do about it.


The entire point of a spiritual life, the entire point of spiritual practice, and the entire point of a meditation practice (which, he's eager to point out, doesn't have to be a spiritual meditation practice) is that we actually are able to change. And, we're able to change deep, important, fundamental parts of ourselves. It's not easy, by any means. It takes dedication, determination and not a small amount of constancy. But, bit by bit, slowly but surely, it is possible, without any doubt whatsoever, to change who we are. If we want to, and if we are willing to do the work, we can become kinder. We can become more generous, more forgiving, more loving. More patient. More open-minded.

I've been seriously engaged (albeit sporadically) with mindfulness practice for a number years now. It's getting close to a decade, actually. And, there are times when it feels like it hasn't really had an effect on me--that it isn't "working." But, there are also times when I think I can see a change. That, although I am far from perfect, my work has made me more patient. More understanding. More generous. I think I'm a better person than I was 5 years ago. I think I'm more worthy of admiration (my own, anyway) than I was. There's no false modesty when I say that I've got a long way to go. I am not, in any way, claiming to be adequately kind, or exceptionally generous, or in any sense a paragon of virtue. I've got a lifetime of work ahead of me, and I'm sure that, when it's all said and done, I'll leave this earth a deeply, deeply flawed person. But, I sincerely hope, and somewhat expect, that I'll be less so than I am now. And, I like that direction.

The podcast is a good listen--two smart people talking, openly and honestly, about some very personal stuff (including drug addiction and recovery). Give it a go--I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Freedom is Caring

During my sabbatical, I've been spending some time with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Torah commentary. For those who don't know, Soloveitchik was one of the giants of the 20th century, and he more or less created what we now know as Modern Orthodoxy. He never actually wrote a Torah commentary, but one of his students gathered various teachings of his which related to various parts of the Torah, and assembled them into a single work. It's a pretty fantastic bit of Torah.

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we get the Passover story, including the commandment of the Paschal sacrifice. It is, according to at least some sages, the only sacrifice which is closely tied to the idea of chavurah, community. One sage even asserts that this one particular sacrifice can only be offered by a group, never an individual. This one offering, so closely tied to freedom, can never be an individual act.

But, a chavurah, a community, is more than a group. It must be bound by something. And, that something is chesed. What's chesed? It's usually translated as "kindness," but it also has a sense of communal obligation about it. Loving responsibility. That, Soloveitchik teaches, is what freedom is really about. The ability to display chesed.
The ceremony of the Passover meal, centered around the paschal lamb, aims at the emergence of the new chesed community--for chesed is the characteristic mark of the free man...the birth of the chesed community--of a nation within which people unite, give things away, care for each other, share what they possess--is symbolized by the paschal sacrifice...[God] simply wanted the people--slaves who had just come out of the house of bondage--to emerge from their isolation and insane self-centeredness into the chesed community, where the little that man has is too much for himself.
To emerge from our insane self-centeredness. What a phrase. And, what a great definition of freedom. The ability to emerge from our insane self-centeredness.

As you may know, during my sabbatical, I've also been focussing a bit on Social Justice, and on trying to find ways, and partners, to work towards a world which cares more for the oppressed and the marginalized. And, although I don't know that Soloveitchik would have liked this application (he was speaking about the Jewish community here, not the world community), I still found his words resonant with the world of Justice. And, quite dissonant with much of the hatred and anger, and with the treatment of "the other," that I see in the news.

What is freedom? Freedom is defined, and symbolized, by our ability, and our willingness, to emerge from our insane self-centeredness, and to instead live within a nation built on caring for each other.

Cain Yehi Ratzon--May that be God's will.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Mindfulness vs. Justice?

For a while now, two of the most important aspects of my Judaism (and of my rabbinate) have been Mindfulness and Social Justice. And, for just about as long, I’ve been struggling with a tension between the two. They certainly aren’t in direct conflict; in many ways they are complementary. But, in at least one major way, they are most most definitely in tension.

My mindfulness training is always coming back to lovingkindness, in one form or another. It pushes me to be calm and levelheaded, and to be open to others as much as possible. Mindfulness and meditation are supposed to lead us to peace and calm. Screaming in anger is most definitely not a mindful way to be.

But, screaming in anger is precisely what my Social Justice work often pushes me to want to do. When I read about injustice—racial*, economic, gender; it doesn’t really matter what kind—I get angry. No surprise there; anyone who can read about these kinds of injustices and not get angry should be concerned. And, when I read or hear from others who don’t seem to care about these things, from those who dismiss others’ cries of injustice, from those who deny that injustice is real—well, that doesn’t exactly create a groundswell of mindful serenity within me.

By the way, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power. I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a difficult book (not the writing, which is beautiful, but the content), but so, so important in its subject matter. 

I sometimes feel pretty torn about all of this. On the one hand, I want to continue to explore what mindfulness can bring to me, and how it can change me. I admire the equanimity that truly mindful, spiritual people can bring to their lives. I admire the effect that peaceful equanimity can have on those around them. I want to be calm, and thoughtful, and respectful, and to be someone who engenders those qualities in others.

On the other hand, I want to scream, and rant, and rail. I want to stand on the corner and yell at people who, knowingly or not, abuse their privilege and, unwittingly or not, remain complicit in the oppression of others. Part of me wants to be monklike, and part of me wants to be a righteous prophet. And, while I hope (and kind of assume) that time will help me find some kind of a balance between those two poles, I currently have no real idea how to imagine, let alone achieve, that balance.

Maybe one piece of the puzzle is in an article I set aside a long time ago, but never got around to reading, “Hard on Systems; Soft on People” by Tim Wise. The basic idea? Wise suggests that we be unforgiving in our resiststance to unfair and unjust systems. That we fight, tooth and nail, against the larger forces of oppression. But, that we also remember that not every person who is connected to those systems is evil, or deserving of being screamed at.

Why? Well, in part it’s strategic. Screaming at people is often just an ineffective way to engage in advocacy, for so many reasons. But, more importantly (to me, and my current balancing act, at least) is that it acknowledges that people are complicated, and flawed, and somewhat conditioned by our circumstances. Sometimes good people think or say or do bad things. We don’t have to be kind or forgiving to those things that they think, say, or do. But, we can still be kind to the person who thought, said or did them.

Just to be clear--Wise says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this isn't advice for every situation. Some people are so awful (or, if you prefer, behave so awfully) that a bit of vitriol is appropriate to send their way. But, at least some people deserve a bit more compassion. And, it might be easier to show it to them if we remember that we are often the ones who fall short and need that forgiveness.

Look, here's my reality. I'm racist. And sexist. And homophobic. Hell, I'm probably somewhat Antisemitic. I'm obviously not a mouth-breathing, White-Power-rally-attending fascist. But, I struggle with just about every -ism you could name. I have, in the past (probably more recently than I'd be willing to remember or admit) said terrible, hurtful things. I know I've spent most of my life not being aware of, or taking responsibility for, my privilege. And, I'm not done with any of that. I probably won't ever be.

Maybe if I remember that I've got my own demons to keep fighting, I'll be a bit more able to be kind to others who are doing the same. And, hopefully none of that will keep me from fighting to make sure that our darker inclinations are never allowed to go unchallenged. Maybe I'll find a way to keep fighting, while growing more mindfully loving. Maybe, God willing, one day they'll even feel like the same thing.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Yizkor - Our After Life

Our After Life

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Yizkor, 5778

One thing which often surprises people about Judaism is that we don’t have a definitive answer to the question, “What happens after we die?” Naturally, sages and scholars have been discussing this mystery for thousands of years, but it remains exactly that — a mystery. No one knows for sure what the afterlife is, or if there is one at all. It is, I would argue, a rather sensible form of agnosticism. The simple truth is that no one has been there and back, and we have no reliable communication from beyond. The matter could hardly be anything other than unsettled.

What we do have, then, is an endless string of supposition, imagination, hope, and storytelling. Throughout the generations, we have not so much tried to define precisely what the afterlife is actually like, as we have told stories about what it might be like, and about how we can imagine it. One rabbi tells a story of sitting in an eternal study hall, pouring over sacred books, day after day. One mystic tries to explain what it must be like to be reunified with the All. And so on.

One of the most moving moments of afterlife theology came to me from the most unlikely of sources: my non-Jewish, devoutly atheist brother-in-law. Once, at a family gathering, another family member was quizzing him about his lack of belief in God. Along the way, he was asked if he believed in any kind of an afterlife. After thinking for a moment, he answered, “I believe that I will live on after my death in precisely the same way my personality remains in the room after I’ve left it.”

I will die someday. Of that, I can be sure. When that day comes, will I, in some literal way, ascend up to heaven, and find a seat at the right hand of God? I don’t think so, but I can’t say with any certainty whether I will or won’t. Will I possibly remain on this earth as a disembodied spirit, trying to contact my relatives and descendents for all of eternity? I doubt it very much, but I suppose that anything is possible. I won’t claim any special knowledge; certainly not more than the sages of our tradition.

What I know for sure is that, when I do finally pass from this world, I will not be fully gone. I will have students who learned from me, and carry my lessons, and through them a piece of me, in their hearts. I will have people I’ve helped whose lives will be better because of me, and who will spare me a kind thought, now and again. I will have friends who remember a joke that I loved, and will tell it in my name. I will have family members who love me, and speak of me often. In that way, at least, I know I will live on after my life.

My father died a year ago, but I can still remember his laugh, and the look of almost confused awe and pleasure which crossed his face when he held his grandchildren for the first time. My grandpa Bernie died while I was in rabbinical school, but I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, the stoop of his shoulders, and the slow, quiet way he talked about things that concerned him deeply. My grandma Gus died my first year as Rabbi here, but I can still remember the taste of the chocolate cake she made me for every special event, knowing that it was my favorite. I could go on, but I’m sharing these not because they’re particularly special, but because they’re so common. Each of us could list the people we’ve lost, and the almost tangible memories they’ve left behind with us.

There is nothing in the world which is more real than the memory of a loved one. When we remember them, we deeply and truly keep them alive in our hearts, and therefore in this world. Through us, even if through no other means, they live on after their life. Through us, even if through no other means, they have an afterlife.

Zichronam Livracha—may their memories be an abiding blessing.

Yom Kippur - Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Yom Kippur, 5778

2000 years ago, a potential convert went up to one of the great sages of the day — one of the great sages in all of Jewish history — by the name of Shammai. This anonymous man demanded of Shammai, in a nearly always mistranslated quote, “Teach me all of the Torah in a single rule.” Shammai, apparently not without a sarcastic side, grabbed a nearby measuring stick — a ruler, if you will — and beat the man away. The man then tried again with Shammai’s counterpart, Hillel. “Teach me all of the Torah in a single rule.” To which Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to any other person. All the rest is commentary; now, go and learn it.”

Hillel’s quote has, of course, become one of the most famous in all Judaism. Perhaps, the most famous of all time. In various forms, it has become known as the Golden Rule — the most basic guideline for decent living. If you would hate having something done to you, don’t do it to anyone else. We hear the quote, or something like it, so often that is easy to not take it seriously. It sounds almost trite to our ears — something more deserving of being on a bumper sticker or an Internet meme than as a foundational text for a major religion. And so, it’s easy to miss how incredibly profound, and how incredibly challenging, Hillel’s maxim actually is.

What the Sage was trying to teach that man — what he was trying to teach all of us, really — is that, in Judaism, morality is primary. Morality comes first. Morality isn’t the entirety of our religion — there is more, and we are obligated to learn it, according to Hillel. But, the first thing we have to know if we’re going to be engaged in Judaism is that we are obligated to lead moral lives. That’s the source text around which all of the rest of Judaism is commentary.

It’s an idea which is an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah. The words which we read just a few minutes ago as part of the haftarah:

Is this the fast I desire?
A day to afflict body and soul?
Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast — a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?
Is this not the fast I desire —
to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;
to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and to take the homeless poor into your home,
and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?

What Isaiah, Hillel, and countless sages and teachers since were trying to teach us, and continue to try to teach us, until this day, is that there can be no meaningful Judaism, and that there can be no striving for holiness, no attempts to approach the divine, which are not firmly grounded in how we act towards one another. That making the world moral and just is a prerequisite for making it holy. How we treat others is everything. Or, at the very least, it is the beginning of everything. It is the wellspring from which all other good flows. Once, Rabbi Akiva was asked about the Song of Songs, a book from our bible in the form of an extended love poem. Akiva, one of the greatest rabbis, and one of the most dedicated lawmakers in Jewish history, said that if Song of Songs  was the only sacred book which we had been given, it would have been enough. A book about love, he said, would be all that we would really need to understand how we were supposed to act in this world. That, on some level, a much later sage was right when he said, “Love is all you need.” “What is the loving, compassionate thing to do?” might not be the only question we need to answer. But, it isn’t a bad rule of thumb for sacred living, or a bad starting place. It may or may not be all that we need to lead meaningful Jewish lives, but a Jewish life without that guideline is empty.

Hillel’s “What is hateful to you do not do to any other person” was really a variation on the commandment from Leviticus, “V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha-- love your neighbor as yourself.” That commandment is part of what we refer to as “the holiness code,” which will be our Torah reading this afternoon. It begins with the directive, “You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy.” It is an instruction manual for how to lead a holy life. “Holiness” is actually a tough concept to define. But, the rabbis have always understood it to be primarily about the attempt to act like God. None of us can be exactly like God, of course. But, the more we act in ways which we understand God to act, the more we are living holy lives. And, by including “love your neighbor as yourself” as part of these instructions, our tradition is teaching us that we can’t be holy, we can’t claim to be imitating God, until we learn to love the other as ourselves. We are commanded to love the other as ourselves. But, can we be commanded to love someone? And, what does it even mean to love them “as yourself?”

It doesn’t make sense to command love. Love is an emotion, and we can’t control what we feel, at least, not directly. We’re told that God would never demand something of us that wasn’t in our power to do, so how do we explain this? Our tradition resolves this conundrum by teaching that the Torah isn’t actually commanding us about how to feel, but rather about how to act. I don’t have to love you, I just have to behave as if I do. Hillel’s formulation, which concerns our actions, not our feelings, reflects that understanding, as do countless teachings from the rabbis who follow him. Judaism overwhelmingly takes the view that it is our actions, not our emotions, which define us. How I feel about you is complicated. Regardless, I am commanded to behave towards you, towards everyone, as if I loved you as myself.

But, what about that “as myself?” Can I love anyone “as myself?” What does that even mean? At a minimum, it seems clear that we’re being commanded to do something rather radical. This is not a small commandment. Sforno, one of the great medieval rabbis, says that we are being given the obligation of actually imagining that our roles were reversed. We have to imagine that we were the one in that other person’s situation, and then ask ourselves what we would want someone to do were they to see us so. Not to begin with, “what is my obligation to you in this moment?” Rather, to begin by asking myself what I would hope you would do were you to see me in pain, or in need. Maybe, standing by the side of the road, with a sign in my hand, asking for money for food. How would I hope you would respond were you to notice that I was the one who was cold, or scared? What would I hope your reaction would be? That should be my reaction.

What that means is that we have to see people, we have to encounter people, as they really are. We have to try to see them from their own perspective, not from ours. We have to train ourselves to remember that we aren’t seeing case studies or “just another one of them’s.” We are seeing actual people, as they really are. God, it’s not easy. It’s hard intellectually — we can’t really know another person, or his or her situation, or how we would react, were we in their place. But, more challengingly, it’s incredibly hard emotionally. It’s so much easier to shut them out, even if we’re going to do the kind thing and help a little. Give them a dollar or lend a hand, and then turn away and move on, as fast as possible. To actually imagine that it’s us that’s cold, or hungry, or in need? That it’s our children, not theirs? What will that do to us? How will that make us feel, sitting in our comfortable places? What obligations will we acknowledge, if we allow ourselves to open our hearts that wide?

Can we learn to truly listen to the people around us? Can we train ourselves to hear their voices, and to hear their cries, in all the various ways that they cry out? Can we hear them as they want to be heard, as they need to be heard, not as we want or need to hear them? To really listen, not applying our own filters, and not listening with half an ear, in order to better ready our own counterarguments? Can we truly act towards them in the way that we would wish they would act towards us if, God forbid, we were they?

We have to train ourselves to approach other people — each and every one of them — as though they were just as important as we are. Because, they are. Of course they are. That’s what it means when we’re told that all people are created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Each one of us was created by God. Each one of us contains within us a spark, a fragment, of divinity. And, each and every one of us is equally important to, and equally loved by, God. It’s another phrase that gets thrown around so often and so easily that it loses its power. Betzelem Elohim — being created in the image of God — is not a slogan. It’s a radical challenge. It’s the foundation stone of all of Judaism.

Now we can start to understand that loving the other as ourselves is not simply one component of living in a holy way. It is a fundamental, integral piece of holiness. Remember, living a holy life is defined in Judaism as trying our best to act like God. And so, if God loves each of us equally, then treating everyone as if we love them, equally, is part of how we have to act if we want to act in holy ways. Not loving our neighbor as ourselves, or at least not trying to, is understood as denying that we are all equally from, and equally loved by, God. That’s why the Sage known as Gadol Echad teaches that not obeying “love your neighbor as yourself” is the same as refusing to obey “love Adonai your God.” Or, even more radically, why the Ba’al Shem Tov would teach that if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, then it is as if God is not really God, at all. How we treat each other is how we make God real in the world.

To put it slightly differently, Judaism teaches that morality is theological. Caring for others is theological. It is impossible to be holy, it is impossible to feel the presence of God, without first caring for those around us. For all of those around us. It is through other people that we can most readily meet God. Every time we see someone, especially someone in need, and we ignore them, we push God away. Every time we refuse to acknowledge that person, or to acknowledge their need, we push holiness out of this world. Every act of hate, every act of oppression, every act of uncaring. These are the anti-God, the anti-holiness, which keep our world broken.

Hillel was right — this really is the whole Torah. Loving other people brings God into the world. Treating other people as if we loved them, acting towards other people in the way that we would want to be treated, were we truly in their place, brings God into the world. Hating other people, oppressing other people, refusing to hear the cries of other people — these things push God away. They make our world less holy. Holiness begins with love, and with caring. For everyone.

The Ba’al Shem Tov had a practice. He had written a chant for the words, “Hareini Mikabeil Alai Et Mitzvat HaBorei—v’Ahavta l’re’echa kamocha—here I am, ready to accept upon myself the commandment of the creator: love your neighbor as yourself.” And he would repeat this chant, over and over, before he prayed. He would not let himself begin to actually pray until he could recite this chant with a whole heart. He understood that it was impossible, that it is contradictory, to attempt to reach God, to attempt to touch holiness, without first accepting our responsibility to love those around us. The world is made holy when we accept our obligation to act lovingly towards one another. When we accept our obligation to act lovingly towards everyone, each one of us created betzelem Elohim. All the rest is commentary. Let us go and learn it.