The line between greatness and failure is so small as to be unrecognizable, often revealing itself only after many years. This is true in the world of business, science, technology and the like, where the results of today's efforts can remain unknown for many years. It is equally true in the world of morality, where it is often most difficult to determine if a particular action is a great mitzvah or its opposite.
One must be cognizant not only of what one is doing, but the context, intent and potential results of one's actions (or lack thereof). This is no easy task, but is one we ignore at our (and others’) peril.
“One must fear his mother and father and keep My Shabbat” (19:3). Properly balancing these two commands may be fraught with difficulty. A child coming from a non-observant home may choose to embrace mitzvoth, a choice that may not find favour in the eyes of his parents. While the juxtaposition of these two mitzvoth led our Sages to teach that honouring one's parent may not come at the expense of honouring G-d, one must tread very carefully, seeking to resolve the conflict in a way that honours both. We must ensure that any newfound religiosity is not a vehicle to look down on others, nor must our concern for others come at the expense of our moral principles.
The prohibition of tale-bearing and that of not standing idly by the blood of one's neighbour appear in the same verse, even though observance of the latter most often entails violation of the former. One must speak up against a person seeking to do harm to another, whether that harm is physical, financial or emotional. The question of whether one's tale bearing is a terrible act of gossip or a great mitzvah requires thorough analysis, precision and insight. So often, it is not clear whether it is speech or silence that is called for.
Immediately thereafter, the Torah commands, “Do not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke him; and do not bear sin because of him” (v.17). It is well known that embarrassing one in public is akin to murder—perhaps even worse. What is less known is that our Rabbis derive the prohibition from this verse, noting that rebuke may not be done if it will “whiten his face in public”. Once again, we are faced with a tension between when to speak and when to remain silent, when to let a moral outrage pass without comment and when to risk ruffling some feathers to stand up for what is right.
It is Rabbi Akiva who taught that “to love one's neighbour as oneself” is the fundamental principle of the Torah. Yet even here, there is a fine line that we must aim to preserve. The word used for neighbour, rei’acha, means not only a physical neighbour but also a moral one: “your brother in mitzvoth”. On the one hand, Jewish law derives from this verse that even a murderer is to be given “a pleasant death”; even the most evil of people are created in the image of G-d. Yet at the same time, “when evil is destroyed, we must rejoice”, and we must distance ourselves from the moral leper. Determining when to have “the right [hand] draw close, or the left [hand] push away” is rarely easy.
“You must be holy, since I, the Lord your G-d, am holy” (19:1). Holiness is attained through imitating G-d, in imbuing the secular with meaning and purpose. But holiness is also attained through struggle, through trial and error, through sincere effort. The Midrash teaches that G-d created many worlds and destroyed them before our universe was created. There is never a guarantee of success. But we must keep building, using what lays before us to build higher and higher. That is the path to kedusha.