While facts do not lie, they often do not tell the whole truth. Facts are facts but facts still must be evaluated as to their moral propriety. And for that we need context. Two hockey teams might be eliminated from the first round of the NHL playoff. For one it is a huge disappointment (see Toronto Maple Leafs) and the loss costs the coach his job and for another it is a major accomplishment just to have made the playoffs. It all depends on the context.

Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, context is most important in reading the Torah. We lose much if we study just part of verse, or a full verse but not a chapter, a chapter and not an entire book of the chumash, an entire book but not the entire Torah.

Context matters even from a legal point of view. It is the juxtaposition of the mitzva of tzizit with that of sha’atnez, the prohibition of wearing a piece of clothing with a mixture of wool and linen, that led our Sages to rule that the mitzva of tzizit overrides that of sha’atnez, and one fulfils the mitzva of tziziteven if the garment is that of sha’atnez.

Rashi (19:2) notes that parshat Kedoshim is the most important of the Torah – “the majority of the essence of the Torah is dependent on it”. Contributing to its importance is the fact that it contains what may be the most important verse of the Torah – veahavta l’reacha kamocha – one must love their ‘neighbour’ as themselves”. As Rabbi Akiva notes it is a[1] “fundamental principle of the Torah”, so fundamental that 150 years earlier Hillel explained that not only is this the most fundamental principle, it is the only principle of the Torah[2], or at the very least the principle from which all other principles are derived[3]. “All the rest is commentary – go and learn” (Shabbat 31a).

While this (part of a) verse is often quoted, it is much rarer for it to be quoted in context. For starters veahavta l’reacha kamocha is only part of verse, a verse that reads “You shall neither take revenge from, nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19:18). Read in context it is clear that we are talking about loving someone you don’t really like, someone with whom you are inclined to take revenge or bear a grudge.

It is easy to like your friends – that is why they are your friends. It is even easy to love humanity as a whole – especially those whom you have never met. But to love your neighbour, the one who may at times make you mad – now that is hard. And that is when this great mitzva becomes so important.

Going back a verse reinforces the point. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account” (Vayikra 19:17). Do not hate your brother the Torah warns. Presumably, there is good reason for hating this person and hence the second part of the verse instructs us to rebuke him for his wrongdoing. This rebuke must be done with love[4] and is a sign of love – we don’t try to correct those we do not care about – and hence begins the process of repentance and of turning hatred to love.

Going further back to the beginning of the parsha we are commanded to be holy because G-d is holy. Holiness is one of the ways in which we imitate G-d. And G-d loves people. And only because of that love was man created. Olam chesed yibaneh (Tehillim 89:3), the world was created as an act of kindness. G-d loves us so much that He created us in His image. As He loves us so we must love Him and we must love His creation. Loving others is a manifestation of holiness[5]. How much richer is our understanding of the verse when read in the context from the beginning of the Torah.

So far we have looked at what precedes veahavta lereacha kamocha and if we stopped here it would be the culmination of this most important parsha. But that is not something we can do. This verse is the middle of a section of the Torah. Yet the immediately succeeding verse would seem to have little to do with this cardinal principle of the Torah.

“You shall observe My statutes (chukim): You shall not crossbreed your livestock with different species. You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds, and a garment which has a mixture of shaatnez shall not come upon you” (Vayikra 19:19). The Torah lists a series of laws beginning with holiness and reaches a crescendo with the mitzva to love all. And we follow that with sha’atnez, with planting vines next to wheat or the prohibition of crossbreeding!  

Sha’atnez, is one of the classic chukim of the Torah – a law that if not for the divine imperative there would be no reason to observe. On the one hand the Torah is teaching that both the rational mitzvot – and what can be more rational than loving our fellow man – and the “irrational” mitzvot  – and there would seem to be little rationale to the prohibition of mixing wool and linen – are the word of G-d and must be treated accordingly.

At the same time the Torah is teaching that even if it is “irrational” to love someone – a sinner who needs rebuke, or someone who might be worthy of revenge – we must still do so. This is a chok, a law of the Torah that must be followed if it may seem unreasonable to us. 

The various prohibitions of kilayim involve the mixture of different species. The mitzva of veaahavta lereacha kamocha means that we must love those who are different. We must get to know them, learn from them and love them even if we disagree with them. This too is the fundamental principle of the Torah.

[1] I have heard it said many times that it is “the” fundamental principle of the Torah, and that may well be true. However, both Rashi and the Sifra, (the source Rashi uses) say “zeh klal gadol baTorah”, this is a fundamental principle of the Torah and not zeh Haklal gadol baTorah, this is the fundamental principle of the Torah. Presumably, the “the” comes from Hillel who understood this verse as “the entire torah”

[2] See here for my thoughts on how Hillel’s words also apply to mitzvot between man and G-d.

[3] Hillel actually paraphrases the verse stating it in the negative “what is hateful to you do not do to others. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary, go and learn”. Why Hillel does so will have to be the subject of another devar Torah.

[4] So much so that our Talmudic Sages declared some 1,800 years ago that we no longer have people capable of giving proper rebuke (Erchin 16b).

[5] Interestingly, besides G-d and our fellow man we are commanded to love the ger, the stranger and convert – a mitzva not surprisingly found in parshat Kedoshim. On a certain level we are all strangers vis-a-vis our relationship with G-d. If G-d loves us then of course we must demonstrate extra love to the stranger.