There is perhaps no rule more golden, more paraphrased, or more often repeated than “Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated.” From the first time we’re taught as children how to interact with peers through the rest of adult life, this rule seems to be our default instruction. But why do we need reminding time and time again? Because our instincts include an element of self-preservation. It’s natural to want to be the best or the strongest. Kids want to be faster, older, taller. Adults want to feel intellectually superior. These are broad generalizations of course, but the point is that the “golden rule” isn’t necessarily human nature, which could be the reason we have to refer to it so often. Versions of the golden rule also echo throughout our Torah, perhaps because human nature can often lead us astray, or perhaps because it is just that critical to a functioning society, or maybe a little bit of both.
This week we read from Parshat Behar, the penultimate section of text in the book of Vayikra. The text details the laws about “returning” the land in Israel during the shmita (jubilee year) and how slaves and land are returned to their prior status. We also read about what happens to Jewish-owned land in the diaspora in the jubilee year and how we are to help those who are in need within our own communities. The text ends with another warning against idolatry.
As the Torah continues to detail the ways in which we’re supposed to respect and value the land we live on, it also offers insight into the notion that respect for people and their dignity is also an imperative. In chapter 25, verse 43 God implores landowners to not deal ruthlessly with their workers. The word used here that is usually translated as “ruthlessly” is b’farek and only appears in this section of Torah and also when describing the ways that Pharaoh treated the Israelites in Egypt. The direct meaning of the Hebrew word as explained by the Mishneh Torah connotes a prohibition against embarrassing or humiliating the slave in an attempt to emphasize the master’s power over them.
There is something inherently ruthless about exerting power through humiliation. It doesn’t just break the golden rule, it completely erases it. It’s sad and frustrating and even dangerous when this type of attack is perpetrated, whether by a country against its people or by an individual against another individual on social media. I look forward to the day when the golden rule is human nature and treating others as you want to be treated is the default, not the lesson that needs to be taught over and over again.