Shabbat Behar & Behukotai

Candles - May 11th @ 7:42 pm
Havdalah - May 12th @ 8.38pm
Mevarhin Rosh Hodesh Iyar

This week adds a new ethical imperative, a law against hurting other human beings. The prohibition of Ona’ah. Making someone else suffer either through actions, unfair business activities or abusive language. Both in this regard and in last weeks “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” the sentence concludes with the declaration “I Am God.” In other words, we should do something that is right because God said so, not because we think so.

Why and how do we decide that something is right?

Two English thinkers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed the idea of Utilitarianism, that seeking good for a society requires that something, some action will benefit the greatest number within a society. But in his book “Utilitarianism” Mill goes further and says that those actions are right in the degree to which they promote happiness. And wrong if they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Happiness is intended to give pleasure, and the absence of pain; and unhappiness is pain, and the denial of pleasure. This was how the American Declaration of Independence came to include the words"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But what is happiness? Many people interpret it differently. And sometimes doing the right thing does not make one happy. Like visiting a sick person in a hospital. And if we take avoiding pain literally we will never have an inoculation or an operation. As for pleasure, some take pleasure in harming others. Should we go by what the majority wants? That too can be dangerous. Most Germans were in favor of killing Jews barely 80 years ago. What about those who think it is good to destroy Israel? This why many thinkers tried to modify utilitarianism to talk about benefit rather than pleasure. But then who decides on benefit? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot?

This why the Torah says that loving one’s neighbor and not oppressing another human should not be done because they make sense, or benefit us in return. But because there is an objective code, from a force greater than human beings and what humans think is right. We need God. We need a standard that cannot be fiddled with.