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Love Your Neighbor

05/02/2017 11:04:18 AM


May 2, 2017
by Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

This past Sunday was an extraordinary day at Congregation Sherith Israel. Every inch of our building was in use. Half of our space was rented by a church group. As I walked up California Street, I encountered friendly greeters and a smiling minister, welcoming me into our synagogue! 

Meanwhile, our school building was vibrant and filled with Jewish study. Our dynamic religious school classes were in session. In addition, we had some special programs going on, too. Upstairs, our teens were studying about Israel with Karen Stiller of the JCRC. Downstairs, also through the JCRC, Dr. Eran Kaplan of SFSU taught adults about Israel and the history of the settlements. As these classes were drawing to a close, people began to gather in Labe Lounge for a Jewish-Muslim dialogue. We hosted a delegation from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.  

The opportunity to meet face-to-face was unexpected—in the days following the numerous bomb threats at JCCs around the country, the head of the local Ahmadiyya mosque contacted me to offer support and friendship to the Jewish community. A conversation began. I invited members of the mosque to meet with members of our synagogue. When we gathered on Sunday, the leader of the Muslim delegation explained their philosophy: Religion is about the creation of empathy, he told us. I was fascinated because without knowing it (I imagine), our new Muslim friend was giving a beautiful drash on this week’s Torah portion(s).

This week, we read a double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. We receive the instruction that is often held up as the ideal for living a Jewish life—V’Ahavta l’reiecha kamocha—Love the stranger as yourself. The Torah portions in Leviticus are filled with many laws intended to help the Israelites establish an autonomous community. Free for the first time in hundreds of years, the Israelites needed guiding principles. Many laws are given to us—613 to be exact. And, at the center of all of the laws—the “do”s and “don’t”s that make up our system of mitzvoth—is empathy. Treating others with dignity and justice-ness (tzedakah) requires an ability to step into their shoes. Learn to be kind to others.  And if you do this right, the Torah teaches, you will even learn to love your neighbor as yourself.  

I was excited to witness our synagogue as a welcoming space for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Especially at a time in history when many people feel a disheartening powerlessness to affect meaningful change in society, Sunday felt like a step in the right direction.  

V’Ahavta l’reiecha kamocha—Love the stranger as yourself. It’s a powerful instruction to guide us as we wander.

Sat, April 21 2018 6 Iyar 5778