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.