“Everyone shall revere his mother and his father and keep my Sabbaths, I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:3) “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.” (19:11) “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” (19:14) “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” (19:15) “Do not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen.” (19:17-18) “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” (19:32) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. 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.” (19:33-34)
So many remarkable laws in this morning’s Torah portion! It is one of the most inspiring, stimulating and thought-provoking portions in the entire Five Books of Moses. More than most weekly readings, this one seeks to answer the question: what does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be a holy people? “You shall be holy,” God tells us at the beginning of the portion, “because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
And before we can formulate the words of the question – “Dear LORD, what do you mean by that?” – an avalanche of commandments is heaped upon us.
What does it mean to be holy? The Torah seems to be telling us that it means to follow all these rules; and most of them are very idealistic, ethical commands, that are not always so easy to observe. We are not automatically “holy” from birth, nor by the grace of God. Rather, we can strive to become “holy” by following these commandments. For each one of them we could tease out their many implications for our every day lives – because so many of them apply to all kinds of things we do every day.
So, where to begin? Rabbi Akiba, a great sage who lived around the year 120, said that the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which is found in Leviticus 19:18, is THE most important commandment in the entire Torah. (Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12)
Another great sage, who lived about 150 years before Rabbi Akiba, restated this rule a little. His name was Hillel. As the story goes (Shabbat 31a), a gentleman came up to Hillel and told him that he wished to convert to Judaism. BUT, first Hillel had to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel could have said, “forget about it, there’s too much to say. I can’t teach you the entire Torah in a couple of minutes.” But instead, Hillel thought about it for a little while and then answered, “What is hateful to you, do not do to someone else, the rest is commentary, go and study.”
It seems, then, that both Hillel and Rabbi Akiba would consider “Love your neighbor as yourself” to be a foundational principle of our faith and practice. So, let us consider just this one commandment this morning. What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?
The Hebrew word we translate as “your neighbor” is Re’ekha. And one of the first things we need to understand is that Hebrew word. Now that word comes from a verb which can mean, “to associate with,” “to keep company with” or “to befriend.” I am going to suggest four different meanings of this one word.
First, we can translate the verse as most Bible translations do. Since the verb can mean to associate with or keep company with, in a general way, the word can mean your “neighbor” – those people in your neighborhood, wherever you happen to live.
In a similar way it can mean people you associate with at work. Or, in a more general way, people you associate with because they live in the same town or city you do. In each of these cases, the people you are supposed to love are not people that you chose. They just happen to be people who come into your life because of where you live or work. Yet, says the Torah, you are required to love them.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German rabbi, interprets this commandment to mean that “we are [required] to rejoice in [our neighbor’s] happiness as if it were our own, grieve over his sorrow as if it were our own, [to] assist as eagerly in advancing his welfare as if we were working to advance our own, and [to] keep trouble away from him as if we ourselves were threatened by it. This is a requirement,” Hirsch maintains, “that we can and must fulfill even toward [someone] who is downright repugnant to us, for this requirement of love is not dependent on our neighbor’s person or on his personality traits. … No one may view the prosperity of another as an obstacle to his own well-being or the downfall of another as an aid to his own growth, and no one may rejoice in his own flowering as long as his neighbor’s life remains blighted.”[i]
Are you jealous of the success of your neighbor? Your co-worker? Do they have something you don’t have? The Torah commands us to love them! Be happy for them! We love our children. Would we be jealous if our successful neighbors were our own children? No, we’d be thrilled!
Do you gossip about your co-workers? Ask yourself, would you like it if others gossiped or said these things about you? If not, remember what Hillel said – do not do what is hateful to you.
Have you avoided someone who is grieving or in pain? Someone who is sick and could use some words of comfort? Ask yourself, if you were in their position, wouldn’t you want someone to reach out a helping hand, offer a sympathetic ear?
How many times have we – all of us – gotten angry at someone? They made some mistake, they didn’t do something the way we would have liked it done, or we think they have been insensitive or have hurt us. Ask yourself, “Am I a perfect person? Do I make mistakes sometimes?” Maybe we should be more forgiving, because we, too, make mistakes and would like to be forgiven.
As our Etz Hayim commentary suggests you should “Love your neighbor because he or she is like yourself, subject to the same temptations that you are. Just as we excuse our own behavior by seeing it in context, claiming that we were tired, angry, or misinformed and, therefore, guilty of nothing worse than poor judgment, we should be prepared to judge the behavior of others as charitably.”[ii]
We are commanded to love our neighbor!
The second possible definition of this commandment is more specific: the Hebrew re’ekha can come from the verb “to befriend,” and therefore the commandment comes to say “You shall love your friend as you love yourself.” This is much easier in some ways, because unlike your neighbors, co-workers or fellow citizens, you choose your friends. But the Bible provides us with two examples of very special friends, friends who really did love each other as they loved themselves.
The first example of such friendship is Ruth and Naomi. Ruth was a Moabite, she was not Jewish. But she married the son of Naomi, who was Jewish. When Naomi’s husband dies, and then Ruth’s husband dies, Naomi is grief-stricken. She has lost her husband and her only children. She is at a total loss, and decides to return to her hometown to seek solace with distant relatives.
Naomi bids farewell to Ruth, “turn back to your mother’s house” she says, “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt kindly with my son (before he died) and with me. May you find comfort and security in the home of a future husband who will take care of you.” [paraphrased from 1:8-9] But Ruth insists on coming with Naomi nevertheless. And even after Naomi tried to push her away two more times, Ruth would not be dissuaded from staying by Naomi’s side. “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you,” Ruth tells her mother-in-law. “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” [1:16-17]
That is not the stereotypical relationship of a mother-in-law with a daughter-in-law. Ruth ended up converting to Judaism and she became one of the ancestors of King David. Truly, Ruth loved Naomi as she loved herself. And her love and devotion to Naomi gave her mother-in-law new hope for the future, and comfort in her great grief.
The other example of a powerful friendship in the Bible is the relationship between David and Jonathan. Jonathan was the son of King Saul, and therefore was David’s rival for the throne. Yet the two were extraordinarily close friends. The Bible tells us that “Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself.” [I Samuel 18:1] Jonathan literally gave David the shirt off his back, as well as his sword, bow and belt. [18:4] And when Jonathan is later killed in battle, David cries out “I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, You were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me.” [II Samuel 1:26] Here again were two people, two inseparable friends, who loved each other as they loved themselves. How many of us can say we have friends like that?
The third possible definition of this commandment is even more specific. In the Shevah berakhot, the seven blessings recited under the wedding canopy to the bride and groom, one of the blessings refers to the husband and wife as re’im ahuvim, “beloved friends.” The commandment can therefore be read to include a very specific friend: your spouse, or for those not yet married, your “significant other.” Now, you might say, “So what, Rabbi, of course husbands love their wives and wives love their husbands. This would be an easy commandment to fulfill.” But sometimes it is those who are closest to us that we take for granted, we do not show them how much we love them. Sometimes we focus too much on the annoying habits or weaknesses of those we really love and don’t pay attention to all their wonderful qualities.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, a contemporary Orthodox rabbi who has devoted his life to inspiring people to improve their lives in all kinds of ways, makes several suggestions for spouses. Here are a few of them from a little book he wrote titled simply Kindness:
- “Apply outcome thinking. That is, before you say or do something, ask yourself, ‘What will be the outcome of what I will say or do?’ Only say or do things that are likely to have positive outcomes.
- “See the good. Focus on the positive deeds, qualities, and patterns of your spouse.
- “Don’t cause pain. Give pleasure. These five words create positive marriages.
- “Reframe positively. Find positive ways to evaluate what your spouse says and does.
- “Apologize first. Take the initiative to apologize for any mistakes, misunderstandings, or wrongs.
- “Speak with respect at all times. Even if you are upset or angry, still speak with respect.
- “Constantly say and do things to put your spouse in positive states.”[iii]
So we must love our “neighbor” – our spouse or significant other, as ourselves.
My last interpretation of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the famous professors who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He proposed an interesting twist on this commandment. Noting that Judaism holds that God is everywhere all the time, that means that wherever we go, God is always with us. So, Heschel writes:
“God is not hiding in a Temple” or a synagogue. You don’t have to come here to feel God’s presence in your lives! That is why our Torah gives us commandments that relate to everyday things like what kinds of food we can eat, how we should conduct our business, how we should treat our neighbors, because everywhere we go, everything we do, God is there and so our actions can be infused with holiness and meaning. The problem is we so often don’t pay attention to what we are doing! We don’t often pause to think, “is this what God would want me to do?” Heschel continues: “The Torah came to tell inattentive man: ‘You are not alone, you live constantly in [a] holy neighborhood; remember ‘Love [your] neighbor – God – as [yourself].’”[iv] God is your neighbor wherever you go, wherever you happen to be, at any time of the day!
Being a holy person, part of a holy people, living a holy life, says Heschel, does not require us “to abandon life and to say farewell to this world, but to keep the spark [of the Divine] within [us] aflame, and to [allow God’s] light to reflect in our face,”[v] to shine in our eyes – everywhere we go, and with everything we do, and especially in all our interactions with our neighbors, our friends, and our loved ones.
Loving God and loving our neighbor turn out to be closely related commandments. What better way can we show love for our Creator, than to show love for another of His creations?
Rabbi Pliskin, concludes his book on Kindness, by noting that:
“Some people spend way too much time complaining about the awful state the world is in. There is too much aggression and violence. There is too little kindness and compassion. There is too much anger and depression and too little serenity and joy.
“If someone complains and complains, the world is still full of whatever it is the person is complaining about, and now more complaining has been added. Conversely, if someone spreads compassion and kindness, the world improves. The ripple effect can spread these positive qualities. A little positive action is more beneficial than a mountain full of complaints.”[vi]
“Every time you act kindly, the world has more kindness.
“Every time you are compassionate, the world has more compassion.
“Every time you smile to someone, the world is a more cheerful place.
“Every time you help transform someone’s worry into serenity; the world is a more serene place.
“Every time you calm someone who is angry, the world is a more pleasant place.
“Every time you give money to charity, the world is a more charitable place.
“Every time you encourage someone to do something for others, you are creating a partner to make a better world. [vii]
No wonder Rabbi Akiba felt that to love your neighbor as yourself is the most important commandment in the Torah. No wonder Hillel felt the entire Torah could be reduced to this one principle, provided you go and study the rest to see how to fulfill it properly.
What does it mean to be a good Jew? What does it mean to be part of a holy people? It means making people’s lives better. It means increasing joy and happiness in the world. It means sharing kindness with strangers as well as with friends. It means to love your neighbor, your friend, your spouse, and God as much as you love yourself.
[i] Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch – Translation of the Text and Excerpts from the Commentary of Samson Raphael Hirsch with all Haftaraoth and the Five Megilloth, edited by Ephriam Oratz, English translation from original German by Gertrude Hirschler (New York: Judaica Press, 1986), p. 455
[ii] The Rabbinical Assembly, Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, (JPS, 2001), p. 697
[iii] Zelig Pliskin, Kindness: Changing People’s Lives for the Better, (Mesorah Publications, 2000) p. 186
[iv] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Between God and Man, p. 146
[vi] Pliskin, supra. p 235
[vii] Id. pp. 234.