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At the center of the mosaic books is Vayikra. At the center of Vayikra is the “holiness code” (chapter 19) with its momentous call: “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your G-d, am holy.” And at the centre of chapter 19 is a brief paragraph which, by its positioning, is the apex, the high point, of the Torah:
“Do not hate your brother in your heart.”
“You must surely admonish your neighbor and not bear sin because of him.”
“Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am G-d” (19:17-18).
In this study, I will examine the second of these provisions: “You must surely admonish your neighbor and not bear sin because of him.”
Rambam and Ramban agree in seeing two quite different levels of meaning in this sentence. This is how Rambam puts it:
“When one person sins against another, the latter should not hate him and remain silent. As it is said about the wicked: ‘And Absolom spoke to Amnon neither good nor evil, although Absolom hated Amnon.’ Rather, he is commanded to speak to him and to say to him, ‘Why did you do such-and-such to me? Why did you sin against me in such-and-such a matter?’ As it is said, ‘You must surely admonish your neighbor.’ If he repents and requests forgiveness from him, he must forgive and not be cruel, as it is said, ‘And Abraham prayed to G-d…’ ”
If someone sees his fellow committing a sin or embarking on a path that is not good, it is a commandment to make him return to the good and to make known to him that he is sinning against himself by his evil actions, as it is said, “You must surely admonish your neighbor…”
“You shall surely remonstrate with your neighbor” – this is a separate command, namely that we must teach him the reproof of instruction. “And not bear sin because of him” – for you will bear sin because of his transgression if you do not rebuke him…
However, it seems to me that the correct interpretation is that the expression “you shall surely remonstrate” is to be understood in the same way as “And Abraham remonstrated with Avimelech.” The verse is thus saying: “Do not hate your brother in your heart when he does something to you against your will, but instead you should remonstrate with him, saying, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ And you will not bear sin because of him by covering up your hatred in your heart and not telling him, for when you remonstrate with him, he will justify himself before you or he will regret his action and admit his sin, and you will forgive him.”
The difference between the two interpretations is that one is social, the other interpersonal. On Rambam’s second and Ramban’s first reading, the command is about collective responsibility. When we see a fellow Jew about to commit a sin, we must try to persuade him not to do so. We are not allowed to say, “That is a private matter between him and G-d.” “All Israel,” said the Sages, “are sureties for one another.” We are each responsible, not only for our own conduct but for the behavior of others. That is a major chapter in Jewish law and thought.
However, both Rambam and Ramban are aware that this is not the plain sense of the text. Taken in context, what we have before us is a subtle account of the psychology of interpersonal relations.
Judaism has sometimes been accused by Christianity of being about justice rather than love (“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”). This is entirely untrue. There is a wonderful teaching in Avot deRabbi Natan: “Who is the greatest hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.” What sets the Torah apart is its understanding of the psychology of hatred.
If someone has done us harm, it is natural to feel aggrieved. What then are we to do in order to fulfill the command, “Do not hate your brother in your heart”? The Torah’s answer is: Speak. Converse. Challenge. Remonstrate. It may be that the other person had a good reason for doing what he did. Or it may be that he was acting out of malice, in which case our remonstration will give him, if he so chooses, the opportunity to apologize – and we should then forgive him. In either case, talking it through is the best way of restoring a broken relationship. Once again we encounter here one of the leitmotivs of Judaism: the power of speech to create, sustain and mend relationships.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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