Who is like you?: Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

Nathan was a young man in his 20s, living in Gulfport, Miss. He lived with his mother and grandmother in a small three-bedroom home a little over a mile from the Gulf Coast. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it took most of his roof, flooded a good part of his home, and placed even greater strain on his work as a landscaper. Nathan was the primary caregiver for both his mother and his grandmother. After Hurricane Katrina, Nathan spent his days helping others rebuild their homes, only to return to repair his own home in the late afternoon before night set in. 

I met Nathan when I signed up with the joint Board of Rabbis of Southern California and African Methodist Episcopal Church Mission to rebuild homes in the months after the devastating hurricane hit. Nathan was quiet as the team of Christians and Jews climbed atop his roof and hammered shingles into place. We were quiet because Nathan represented the painful memories of discrimination and hatred in Mississippi history. He didn’t know I was a Jew. I wore my hat while on the site, and when news made its way to him through our team that I was a rabbi, he took long looks at me and scratched his head in disbelief.

At first, I volunteered because I wanted to build houses. Every morning, we showed up at Nathan’s doorstep with tools in hand and the motivation to get to work. Conversations started, stories and histories were shared, a friendship grew. Each day brought a set of challenges with the construction. We had to go shopping for more materials. Lightning and thunderstorms slowed the project down. We entered his home, the mildewed remnant of a house where he was forced to live while his grandmother and mother were able to live in a borrowed trailer across town. On the night it rained, Nathan’s roof was still exposed and in the one room of the house left in some habitable form — the last vestige of protection he had — his bed and personal belongings were drenched. It was a soaking reminder that his life was interminably affected by the harsh course of nature. We had to take his personal belongings and move them to a part of his house that was roofed, while simultaneously helping discard so many books and pictures — memories — into the trash heap on the street. 

We built a relationship with him. That meant that as we rebuilt his home, we rebuilt his faith and courage to continue on. We took responsibility for him; we loved him even though he was one of the least likely people we’d ever meet in our lives. It was a real moment when I understood the words of Torah, “Love your neighbor like yourself.” Call it a “kamocha” moment. 

We find in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, two distinct verses with a similar theme that share one common word: kamocha. It is a reflexive Hebrew word meaning “similar to you.” The first verse reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsmen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). And a few verses later, we read, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

This word kamocha in context can mean: “Love another as you love yourself,” or “Love another who looks like you or is similar to you.” Both resonate with eternal truth. Consideration for others is the path toward recognizing God. To love another is to love God. To love God is to love the other, the stranger in your midst, and even the one who appears estranged to you. 

What’s most remarkable is that these two verses are the only two in the entire Tanakh that refer to self-reflective love. In the hundreds of references to love — love by parents or children, love by God or love for God — these two stand alone with their comparative measure, kamocha. This quality of love is more than amour or affection; it is a love that shatters the ego. It is a love expressed instead of vengeance or retribution, in place of discrimination and segregation. And our Torah intends for us to practice it anywhere and everywhere. 

I may never know what happened next in Nathan’s life after we put a roof on his home and helped bring security back into his life. But, he inspired me to create many more kamocha moments. I’ve come to learn they are the most real encounters we are blessed to experience. 

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Building Homes, Building Hope

The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail findfamilypio@dhh.la.gov.

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.