Acts of Love – Kedoshim 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

As a phenomenon, love is an emotion that bonds people to each other or to an ideal. As an evolutionary tool, love keeps parents together long enough to enable their children to develop and reach sexual maturity and independence. As an emotion, it is difficult indeed to command love. Emotions are evoked. They cannot be commanded. As my favorite vegetable, I love potatoes. But if I have no desire for potatoes, a command to love them is fruitless (vegetable-less?). Yet the Torah commands love. It commands love of God (Deuteronomy 6:7). It commands love of the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19). And it commands love of others (Leviticus 19:18).

What makes the command to love tenable is that the rabbis interpret the Torah to define love as an act, not an emotion. The Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 37b) considers the case of the ritual for atonement when a murdered corpse is discovered (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). Following a determination of which town is closest to the victim, the elders proclaim that they had no knowledge of the crime and are innocent of wrong-doing. A calf is then killed as atonement for the act by chopping at the nape of its neck with a hatchet. By analogy, the Talmud proposes that the same procedure ought to be used for executing a human criminal.

But that proposal is rejected by Rav Nahman on the basis of a teaching of Rabba bar Avuh who applies the verse to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to the latter, to love your neighbor requires doing something loving for your neighbor – even a convicted criminal condemned to be executed. A hatchet to the back of the neck is loathsome. It would be tantamount to unconscionably treating one’s fellow as an animal. Instead, the executioners must “choose for him an agreeable death.” Accordingly, Jewish law requires execution by a sword at the throat.

Leaving aside whether any execution can be “agreeable,” the Talmud leaves the reader to conclude that love entails an act of kindness even for those who do not deserve it. This is profound idea. Love is more than a feeling of attachment or devotion. And love is tested by one’s willingness to act preferentially to those  you do not at all care for.

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What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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