Commentary for Kedoshim

16 May

The verse chapter of this week’s parshah, Leviticus 19, is the source of many of the more well-known mitzvot concerning the treatment of other people. It includes the famous “love your fellow as yourself (19:18),” “You shall not curse the deaf and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind (19:14) “you shall not be a gossipmonger (19:16),” and “you shall not stand idly by while your fellows blood is shed (also 19:16).” We are instructed that “you shall not cheat your fellow (19:13),” to revere our parents (19:3), to not lie (19:11), and to not hold grudges (19:18) or hate our fellow in our heart (19:17).


As one would expect, many of these laws have to do with the treatment of the economically disadvantaged. We are taught to always leave some of our harvest for the hungry; “you shall not complete the reaping to the corner of your field, and the gleanings of your harvest you shall not take. You shall not pick the undeveloped twigs of your vineyard, and the fallen fruit of your vineyard you shall not gather; for the poor and the proselyte you shall leave them (19:9-10).” We are told not to exploit our power over our workers by withholding their wages, even for one day (19:13), and act that, by its inclusion in the same verse, is implicitly compared to cheating and robbery. The poor, the foreigner, and the vulnerable in our society are not to be mistreated.


When a dispute arises between two parties, one advantaged and one disadvantaged, our instinct in modern society seems to be to side with the disadvantaged party. After all, not just Judaism but virtually all of the world’s religions teach us to protect those who need protecting and to stand up for the poor and be charitable and help them in any way we can.

But our instincts are just those: instincts. They are an immediate emotional reaction to being confronted with a situation. They are not infallible. For this reason in Leviticus 19:15, the Torah instructs us that “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.” It is a perversion of justice when the advantaged used their position and their power to abuse the weak, but it is also a perversion of justice to punish those who have done no wrong, no matter what their political or economic status is. True justice, the Torah reminds us, requires us to judge all parties with righteousness; to investigate diligently and to ignore our biases and instincts, and judge solely based on the facts.

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