Our obligations to Creator include kindness to humans

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Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Isaiah 43:21-44:23

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

Torah law is often divided into two distinct categories: beyn adam le Makom, those laws governing man's relationship with the Creator and beyn adam lechaveyro, those laws governing man's behavior toward his fellow man. There are many pragmatic reasons for dividing halachah in this manner, but unfortunately, this division can give rise to a mistaken perception.

The categories are sometimes understood as being separate but equal. In fact, the laws governing man's behavior toward our fellow man are but a subdivision of those governing our relationship with the Almighty. That is to say, all Torah laws reflect the will of G-d concerning our behavior. Some of them, however, specifically address our societal obligations and our personal responsibilities to our fellow man, but these cannot stand on their own. Failure to fulfill them is a failure to fulfill our obligation to G-d as well.

The Torah makes it clear to us that ethical and moral conduct must be an expression of G-d's will and not our own. He has revealed to us what is honest, kind and acceptable behavior. An analogy can be made of a parent who insists that his children share toys, avoid teasing each other, speak kindly to each other, settle their disagreements fairly and so on. The children's dereliction hurts the parent both because of their refusal to obey his directives and because he loves all of the siblings deeply and cannot tolerate any of them being hurt by another's mean or selfish acts.

In this week's Torah portion, Leviticus 5:21, this concept is spelled out. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman as well as many other commentaries explain the literal meaning of the text

"And if someone commits a treachery against G-d": Moral sin in matters between man and his fellow man regarding the injury caused to another man's right and ownership is referred to to here as me'ilah (treachery) against G-d. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also teaches that a sin against one's fellow man is a rebellion against G-d who sees and hears all.

Our sages in the Talmud Yoma 85b state that Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and G-d, but it does not atone for sins between man and his fellow man until one appeases the person one has wronged. As difficult as it may be for us to acknowledge and rectify wrongdoing and to apologize for it in earnest, we must do this before we can beg G-d's forgiveness for our mistakes.

A great deal has been written about the rebuke of our prophets, who railed against the people's practice of offering sacrifices to G-d while the vulnerable members of society were neglected or mistreated. The prophets admonished the nation that sacrifices could only be meaningful to the Almighty if the people first demonstrated their concern for widows, orphans and others who were vulnerable. Without this love and concern sacrifices were just a superficial empty effort, which was unacceptable to G-d.

Leigh Hunt expressed this concept beautifully long ago in the poem "Abou Ben Adhem":

Abou ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw within the moonlight in his room,

Making it rich and like a lily in bloom,

An Angel writing in a book of gold:

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,

And to the presence in the room, he said,

"What writest thou?" The vision raised its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"

Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still, and said, "I pray thee, then,

Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again, with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of G-d had blessed,

And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

Shabbat Shalom