This week we read Parashat Kedoshim, which lies near the physical center of a Torah scroll and constitutes the spiritual center of biblical religion. Let’s look at this section’s most famous verse and its place in prayer.
Modern Bible scholars distinguish among the Torah’s component parts, whose religious views are not always identical. This week may be an example. According to Prof. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University, Leviticus reflects not only a single priestly source, called P for short. Rather, this week’s parasha is built from another source Knohl calls H, for the “holiness code.” Where P focuses on ritual details and the sanctity of temple priests, H locates sanctity among the people generally, not just the devoted elite, and therefore addresses social and ethical – not just ritual – behavior. Indeed, our parasha begins: “Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel and say to them: Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
H’s religious outlook is manifest in its most famous statement [Leviticus 19:17-18]:
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ … וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְ’הוָֽה׃
“Do not hate your kinfolk in your heart … Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Ancient gentile Christians – and many modern American Jews – bristled at this mitzvah of loving your fellow Jew. Isn’t that divisively tribal? Shouldn’t you love everyone, not just your own folk? I think this objection is misplaced. The chapter goes on [19:34] to command loving the stranger as yourself [“Treat the strangers who reside among you as citizens, and love them as yourselves, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”]. The Torah wisely commands us to love our clan within a special relationship because of how much we share and commands us to love others in a different way, no matter how little we share.
The ancient sage Rabbi Akiva thought “love your neighbor as yourself” was the most important mitzvah in the whole Torah [Y. Nedarim 9.4]! Other sages favored other verses, but any way you slice it, you cannot imagine any Judaism without it.
So perhaps it is a little odd that – unlike Judaism’s other major themes – it lacks any formal ritual reinforcement. If you observe holidays and recite traditional prayers you cannot possibly forget cosmic creation, the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, the connection between an exiled people and its ancestral homeland, the need to repent, to study Torah and to keep Shabbat. But you could be a very diligent davvener and shul-goer and not recite this verse very often.
Which doesn’t seem right. And that may be why the great mystic, R. Isaac Luria [Egypt, Palestine, 1534-1572], known as the Holy Ari, formalized its daily recitation.
The Ari’s students in Safed in the Galilee formed a tight group of about 35 or 40 people – at least we know the names of that many, perhaps others participated but were forgotten. Like earlier Kabbalists, he stressed that learning mystical secrets was possible only when students shared emotional bonds. “For us,” says the Zohar [3.128a], “the matter depends on love.”
To that end, according to his leading disciple, R. Hayim Vital, the Ari insisted that before beginning morning prayers – or according to some reports, before entering the synagogue – all his students should state “I hereby accept the creator’s commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In one passage Vital expands:
“Before beginning the order of prayer in synagogue, a person must accept the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself . You should have the intention to love every Jew as you love your own life, for this way your prayer will be bound together with the prayers of all Israel, ascending to heaven and bearing fruit.
“Especially when a group studies Torah together in love, all the members should have the intention of binding themselves together, considering themselves as limbs of a single organism. This is especially true when people attain knowledge and insight to understand their fellows on the level of the soul. If one of the members suffers some pain, all the members must join themselves to their suffering, whether it regards physical illness or children, God forbid, and pray on their behalf. In all your prayers or behaviors or speech, you should bind your comrades to yourself. My teacher of blessed memory exhorted me very strongly regarding loving all the comrades in our fellowship.”
This ritual innovation spread far and fast. From Vital’s circle in Palestine and Syria, by the mid-17 th century, major Polish legal authorities took it on. R. Menachem Auerbach of Krakow [d. 1689, Ateret Zekeinim to Shulhan Arukh OH 1.1] and R. Abraham Gombiner [d. 1683, Magen Avraham, OH 46.1] quoted Lurianic sources to favor this new moment of meditation before prayer.
Yet, this beautiful teaching did not take root over time. You’ll find it in Conservative prayer books, beginning with Siddur Sim Shalom (1985), but not in most Orthodox ones, like Artscroll or Rinat Israel. Hasidic prayer books, like those of Chabad, very influenced by Kabbalah, often include it.
And we all should. Just imagine how davvening would be transformed if you began each new day by promising, aspiring, worshipfully, prayerfully, to love your neighbor as yourself. Imagine the spiritual enhancement to prayer if you reminded yourself: This is not only about me . Before you open the prayer book, open your eyes. Look around your Zoom rooms or real rooms and see the faces of your fellow davveners and say: My blessings come only to the extent that I want those same blessings for you. My relationship with God depends on whether I share God’s love with you. I love you as I love my own life.
Ve’ahavta le’reyakha kamokha. May this mitzvah be remembered and practiced, internalized and externalized, among the Jewish people forever.