Torah Sparks: V’ahavta L’reiachah Kamocha by Rabbi Cantor Eliezer Kepecs

“If you shall say in your heart, these nations are much greater than I in numbers, how will I defeat them.  Do not fear them, for remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and all of Egypt…thus will the Lord your God do to all the nations that you fear,” Deuteronomy 7:17.  In this week’s portion, Ekev, God makes a promise to Israel for all time, that as long as they follow His commandments, and obey His laws, He will bless His people with abundance, and destroy the enemies of Israel.  One such law, paramount in importance is mentioned in Leviticus 19:18, “V’ahavta l’reiachah kamocha,” “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I recently re-read a story involving two bothers.  One brother was married with many children.  The other, was not married.  One night, the unmarried brother thought, “My brother has so many people to feed, maybe there is a way I can help him.  I’ll take a sack of grain from my house and add it to my brother’s grain.”  In the still of the night, he carried a sack of grain which he deposited onto his married brother’s sacks of grain in the storage shed.

Meanwhile, his married brother could not sleep.  As he tossed and turned in bed, he could not help but think, “I have a wife and children.  My poor brother has nothing.  I will give him a sack of grain so that he will have what to eat.”  So he got up from his bed and in the still of the night, carried a sack of grain, and deposited it in his brother’s storage shed.

This same sequence happened four nights in a row, when on the 5th night, when the moon shone brightly, the two brothers bumped into each other in the field, realizing exactly what was happening.  Crying, they dropped their burdensome loads, and embraced each other.  Because of their merit and love, the Beis Hamikdash was built on that hallowed spot where both brothers had embraced in the middle of the night.

“V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha – Love thy neighbor as thyself.” A nice maxim.  So nice that other religions borrowed it from us.  It is actually one of three things that changes God’s decree toward us.  In the High Holiday liturgy, it says, “U’teshuva, ut’filah, utzedaka, maavirin et roa hagzera.”  “Repentance, prayer, and acts of loving kindness, change the severity of God’s decree.”  We are all created in the image of God, and therefore it is incumbent upon us all to act in a “Godly” sort of way, in a holy way, with kindness, compassion toward others, and to live our lives clothed in holiness.  The Torah teaches that when Moses ascended the mountain to repent for the nation’s sin of the Golden Calf, he recalled that God is a merciful God, slow to anger, and remembers kindnesses.  We too, should behave in this manner.

This same principle follows through when speaking about others.  The world, you see, was created by God speaking words like “Yehi Or” “Let there be light.”  One’s words can have awesome powers.  I recall a story of a “ma’aseh shehayah” an event that actually happened in my former synagogue, where every Shabbat morning a certain gentleman would say, “Excuse me sir, you are sitting in my seat, please move.”   Shabbat after Shabbat, the words “you are sitting in my seat came from this person’s lips.  Well, one Shabbat morning, when there were 450 people praying in their seats in shul, this one man in the middle of the service keeled over and died.  HE WAS SITTING IN HIS SEAT.

Another, similar instance was told to me by a colleague who witnessed it.  A man loved to brag, “I was just appointed ‘Chairman for life'”. Very soon after that, he died.  HE WAS IN FACT, “CHAIRMAN FOR LIFE.”

In another instance, I visited a certain auctioneer at his gallery.  He looked kind of like the actor, Wilford Brimley.  I noticed bruises all over his arms and legs.  Upon asking him, “What happened to you,” his response was, “I’m fine.  I’ll live, i’m not dying.”  He didn’t die until two days later.

Words have power, and God has a very strange sense of humor.  After all, what are the odds of any of these occurences happening, but I witnessed two of them myself.  “Abracadabra,” a common word which magicians often use, comes from the Hebrew and Aramaic words Avra K’dabra,”  “I will create as I speak.” The Hebrew words for praise and curse are only differentiated by one letter, and a similar letter at that.  Hallel (Hey Lamed Lamed, meaning To Praise), and Chillel (Chet Lamed Lamed, meaning To Desecrate) and Killel (Koof lamed lamed, To Curse).  The Hey, the Chet, and the Koof are all extremely similar, they look alike.  A Koof has a slightly longer leg than a Hey, and a Chet has legs that are connected to the body itself. You see, a praise can easily become a curse, and a curse likewise can easily become a praise even through one tiny line.

In Deuteronomy 14:2 it says, “Because you are a holy nation unto your God, and God chose you to be for Him a treasured people from all other nations, which are upon the Earth.”  Then immediately, the kosher laws are listed, signifying that as a holy nation, a Jewish person should not put unholy things in his mouth, things that are not kosher things.  We can extrapolate from this that likewise, one should not have unholy things come out of one’s mouth, such as Loshon Hora – the evil tongue.

In Psalm 34, we read King David’s advice, “N’tzor Lishoncha Mera, Usefoteicha midaber mirmah.”  “Guard thy tongue from evil, thy lips from speaking guile.”

One, whose mouth is always open, will not find a single Gemarah remaining to protect him (Shmiras Halashon vol.2 ch.26).  The punishment for this bitter sin includes the loss of whatever little Torah one has. “Why should God be angered by your voice and destroy your handiwork”, Kohelet, Ecclesiastes  says. If one speaks Loshon Hora, he causes any merits he may have earned until that point to be stripped from him and given instead to the person whom he has slandered.  According to Gemarahs Shabbat, Babba Metziah, and Yoma, the first Beis Hamikdash was destroyed on Tisha B’av due to idolatry, but the second was razed to the ground also on Tisha B’av because of Sinat Hinam- literally “free hatred” one for another, coupled with loshon hora.  It is for this reason that we say at the end of every silent Amidah, “O Lord, protect my tongue from evil, my lips from speaking guile.  Open my heart to thy Torah.”  Notice the two requests follow each other.  If we do not guard our tongue, our Torah which we have studied, is considered worthless, and the prayers of the one guilty of loshon hora do not even appear before the Holy One, because of the tumah, the defilement, the impurity that hovers above him. But Teshuvah, sincere penitence, purifies oneself, and all his prayers and mitzvoth which he has performed throughout the years come flooding back to defend him before the Holy Throne. William Shakespeare said it well. When Iago, is peer pressuring Othello into thinking his wife is unfaithful to him and making Othello look bad in front of his boys, he blasts him with “He who steals my purse, steals nothing. T’was mine, tis his, twill be another. But he who steals my name steals everything.”

When the great sage, Hillel, was asked by a Gentile to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he offered this advice: “What is distasteful to you, don’t do unto others.  The rest is commentary.  Now go study the commentary.” (Gemarah Shabbat 31a)

We have a concept of “Midah k’neged midah,” “measure for measure.”  How we judge others is how we shall be judged.  Think about it, as a person acts toward others, so does Heaven act towards him.  So, maybe during these tough days – so severe for Medinat Yisrael – we can smile more. Take extra time in prayer, and give more benefit of the doubt. Say “hi” to someone you barely know, extend a helping hand to a complete stranger.
Who knows? Perhaps, if we do a little bit extra, then HaKadosh Boruch Hu will do the same for us, and turn our tears into triumph.  If one is compassionate toward his fellow man; if one loves his fellow man as himself; if one strives to do good to his neighbor, then Heaven will do good to him.  –by Cantor Eliezer Kepecs

Written and presented by Rabbi Cantor Eliezer Kepecs for Sat. Aug. 12, 2006.  All rights reserved.  No part of this speech may be reproduced in any way, without mention of the copyright’s name.

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