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Parashat Acharei Mot - Love and Reproof

Love and Reproof

Further thoughts on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

by John J. Parsons

[ The following explores some themes found in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Please read these Torah portions to "find your place" here. ]

As a matter of psychological fact, we all make various judgments every day.  Most of these judgments concern matters of empirical fact: Is this water safe to drink? Will that old ladder support my weight? Does that paint color match the color of the walls in the house? And so on.  Other inferences have to do with logical deduction: did I subtract the proper amounts to accurately balance my bank statement?  If we know that Mr. Fuddledum was in Chicago on a business trip at the time of the murder in Detroit, then he cannot be the murderer...

Many judgments or inferences are "preconscious" features of human experience.  We don't usually ask if we are currently dreaming right now rather than experiencing something "real." We unreflectingly assume that our perceptions of space and time are reasonably accurate so that we can navigate in the world. We further assume that the future will resemble the past, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that real patterns of existence are discernible to human reason. We likewise assume that the basic laws of logic apply: that x=x, that something cannot both be entirely red and entirely green at the same time and place, that 1+1=2, that if A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then A is larger than C, and so on.

Beyond such matters of fact and logical deduction, it's also psychologically necessary to make value judgments. I am not referring to subjective preferences regarding the taste of certain foods, the appreciation of a particular piece of art, and so on, but rather value that is ascribed to the knowing process itself. Why should we care to know something rather than nothing? What makes "truth" valuable and "error" something to be avoided? After all, the empirical science can only be engaged using metaphysical assumptions that 1) there is an external world; 2) the scientific method is useful to understand that world; 3) the laws of logic are applicable to the world; 4) it is good to know rather than not to know, and so on.

I say all this as backdrop to the quandary of making judgments about the moral behavior of persons... Of course in today's political climate we are regularly propagandized by the mass media, the entertainment industry, and the secular educational system to unthinkingly accept all moral choices as equally valid. According to the "political correctness" dogma of today, values are relative and therefore no one is in a position to judge the moral choices of others. "Tolerance" is therefore the only real virtue in a pluralistic society.  Of course this viewpoint is utter nonsense, since it is obvious that the word "tolerance" is used as a veiled demand for the acceptance of promiscuous moral choices rather than as part of a genuine argument for relativism per se. After all, an absolute relativist could not (logically) deny the values of a violent fanatic, a rapist, or a mass murderer as being any less significant than those of others.  An absolute relativist is therefore committed to making the absurd claim that there is no essential difference between the actions of Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler, for example, since there is no transcendent basis, no objective standard, no court of appeal beyond the realm of subjective human preference by which a real moral judgment can be ascertained. It should be obvious that absolute relativism is a self-stultifying and therefore irrational position, and that whenever the word "tolerance" is used a means of squelching appeals to moral reality, you can be sure that this linguistic trick is employed to further an evil agenda...

At any rate, the followers of the Messiah have a responsibility to exhort and help one another, and this often involves offering "reproof" or correction (Heb. 3:12-13, Rom. 15:4; Eph. 5:11, 2 Tim. 4:2). But how can we do this in a loving way?  Isn't it easier to heed the statement of Yeshua: "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged" (Matt. 7:1) and overlook the faults of our brothers and sisters?

The sages advise that when you feel compelled to reprove your brother or sister, you must reprove yourself at the same time. Know that you have a share in his or her sin.... Reproaches must be spoken from love, not ill-will, and three conditions must be present for reproof to be acceptable: 1) the one who reproves must do so in genuine humility; 2) the person being reproved must be ready to receive correction; and 3) it is categorically forbidden to shame the person in public. If you cannot offer correction with such mildness, you are better off letting the matter go....

Obviously offering godly reproof requires a great deal of wisdom, and often the indirect approach is the best method. The Baal Shem Tov interpreted, "You shall reprove your neighbor" (Lev. 19:17) as follows. When you wish to correct a friend who has transgressed, do not do so to his face, for you will then cause him grief and embarrassment. You cannot fulfill a mitzvah by way of sin... Instead, speak words of reproof to an acquaintance who clings to Torah and mitzvot and is not guilty of the transgression in question. When the transgressor then hears this reproof, he will understand that it is he who must listen to this admonition and correct his ways... In this way you will avoid shaming the person -- and at the same time, he may repent.

The underlying principle here is love, and this leads to the quintessential commandment given in the Torah: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:18). If you love your fellow man as yourself, you will refrain from taking vengeance or bearing a grudge (i.e., taking offense).  Just as you intuitively care for yourself -- despite the fact that you know you are frail and full of faults -- so must you love your neighbor in spite of his or her faults...

Of course this isn't easy, but immediately after giving the commandment, God declares: "I am the LORD" (אֲנִי יְהוָה), which the sages traditionally interpret to mean, "I, the LORD, will help you fulfill this commandment if you sincerely wish to do so."  The love of others, then, extends to everyone, but especially to the sinner.

In Acharei Mot is a wonderful verse (Lev. 16:16) which states that the LORD "dwells with them in the midst of their contamination" (הַשּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאתָם). Even though the people were unclean (i.e., defiled by tumah), the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) was not removed, and means for reconciliation were provided...

Sometimes it seems easier to offer "love" to a complete stranger. Why do we put on our best public face toward those whom we do not know, and yet are often insensitive, thoughtless, and sometimes even mean-spirited toward our own mishpacha -- to those with whom we are closest? This is where love is tested, since our proximity to others invariably leads to revelation of our own sinful condition.  The love of God doesn't "stop there" (i.e., with a verdict about our sinful condition) but sees beyond the offense and keeps hope. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:7). 

This love is intended to be reciprocal, even if unconditionally given. In other words, the divine love was meant to be shared with others in community.... Indeed when two people sincerely love one another, the Holy One reigns between them (Matt. 18:20). This is alluded to by the Hebrew word for love (ahavah, אהבה), the gematria of which is thirteen, but when shared with another it is multiplied: 13 x 2 = 26 -- the same value for the Name of the LORD (יהוה). The commandment, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" thus awakens in the other the same kind of love for you -- and the result will be a "double love" -- the very love of the LORD.  God will fill you with His Holy Spirit and will help you in the practice of divine love...

Our Lord Yeshua extended the "like-for-like" nature of love (with its implicit appeal to self-interest) by commanding us to (literally) love our enemies. Most of us find rationalizations to excuse ourselves from this duty, of course, and we are only too glad to accept the propaganda of the world that wars are "patriotic," that vengeance is "just," that people who are different from us are to be held in suspicion, and so on.  Yeshua, however, says: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:44-45). Love is more important than even truth, or rather, love is the ground or foundation of the truth... Love is truth, in other words, at least from the perspective of Heaven. God doesn't call out people to become "professors" as much as He calls people to become lovers... It is better to love than to be "right." Love is willing to embrace the wrong in others in redemptive hope. If we find ourselves unwilling to extend such grace, perhaps it's because we are struggling to accept it as our own....

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