Mentsch

On being a mensch--an upstanding member of society--and leading an ethical life.

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We live in a world of differentiation, a world of havdalot, "separations," that give us perspective. We need to see that this is the nature of our world; perhaps we need even to celebrate those separations. Even as we try to repair the world, to restore it to its unity, the world continues to exist with its unbelievable diversity. God, as the underlying unity, gives affirmation and value to all people and all things, even to anger and pride.

God then calls upon us as our first act of creation to become aware, to see clearly, to separate the light from the darkness, and to accept the knowledge that darkness will always be present until the end of time.

And in that awareness, we must remember that we are to be merciful as God is merciful, for all humans are created in God's image. We are taught kevod ha-beriot, "respect and honor for all human beings." For we are truly all equal, all created in the image of the One, all descendants of one set of parents. As different and as unique (and as problematic) as each of us is, we all share the bonds of our humanity, because we are all God's creatures.

The Most Important Verse in the Torah

What is the most important verse in the Torah?

"Rabbi Akiva said: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' This is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai disagreed: The verse 'This is the book of the descendants of Adam… the human whom God made in God's likeness' (Genesis 5:1) utters a principle even greater" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4, 41c).

Why does Ben Azzai find such an obvious choice as "love your neighbor as yourself" inadequate? Perhaps, quite simply, because some people don't know how to love themselves. Perhaps because it demands too much of us--to love everybody?

Or perhaps Ben Azzai thinks that the simple statement of human existence is enough: "This is the record of Adam's descendants." For as we look in the face of another human being, we see the image of God, the image of all God's creatures who have ever existed. Ultimately, we are looking in a mirror and seeing our own face. Through the realization that we are all equal, both in our humanity and in our having been created in the image of God, we learn to treat the other with respect and with kindness.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.