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The Mensch Commandments

Posted on April 29, 2020

by Hazzan Barnett

Among all the obscurities of ritual and Jewish law in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), there can be found within it an amazingly robust enumeration of laws for living a just life—a life of menschlikite. But these are not “niceties.” They are commandments from G-d, admonitions about our behavior towards each other.

The Torah portion in which this list appears is Kedoshim, the second half of this week’s double parasha, which begins with the portion Acharei-Mot.

I have always been struck by this series of commandments, aimed not (only) at the priests (to whom much of the Book of Vayikra is aimed), but the whole of the people Israel. Among the commandments:

  • Don’t pick your vineyard bare, or gather the its fallen fruit; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger
  • Do not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • You shall not defraud people.
  • You shall not commit robbery.
  • Do not withhold the wages of your workers.
  • Do not shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.
  • You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
  • Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.
  • You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.

Although most of these are straightforward, two of them: do not insult the deaf/put a stumbling block are less on the nose. Why single out the deaf, the blind specifically?

Blindness and deafness are not only physical conditions. Insulting someone metaphorically deaf—speaking ill of those unable to defend themselves can create unspeakable horror for the victim.

As for blindness, one who lacks complete information, being unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant of the facts—these are types of metaphorical blindness. The commandment prohibits us from taking advantage of them or tempting them to do wrong.

This one in particular resonates with me in these days of pandemic. I am struck by how many “snake oil” salesmen advertise, make calls to unsuspecting people hoping to defraud people—often the most vulnerable amongst us as they are at their most vulnerable and afraid. Cures that are nothing but a way to make a fast buck. Others willing for their own purposes to help you “invest” your stimulus check. Or pretend to be officials of the government to steal your personal information.

The Talmud speaks of the principle of lifnei iver (putting a stumbling block “before the blind”) as prohibiting us from giving bad advice to another person.

One should not advise another party that it is in his interest to sell (for example) his field in order to buy a donkey, when his true intention is to buy the field for himself. Advice given for an ulterior motive. (Midrash Sifra, Leviticus 19:14).

But there’s also the “bad advice” much more dangerous being pedaled these days for who knows what reason—miracle cures that may or may not have merit in the long run, but it’s much too soon to know—and to understand potential life-threatening dangers they may pose.

The entire list concludes with one of the most well-known quotes in the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha.”

It is the perfect summary not only for this part of Leviticus, but the entire Torah. As Hillel famously said while explaining the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”