This week’s parsha, among different guidelines on how to live a holy life fitting of G-d’s chosen nation, contains an essential yet vague commandment:
‘וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹך, אֲנִי ה
You shall love your brother [fellow Jew] like yourself, I am G-d. (ויקרא יט:יח)
With this, we are commanded in a very deep level of love for our Jewish brothers- beyond brotherly love, caring for a fellow Jew as much as ourselves. This is such a serious command that Tanaic figures like Hillel the Elder (“… this is equal to all other mitzvot in the Torah” -Gemara Shabbat 31a) and Rabbi Akiva (“This is a major rule of Torah” – Yerushalmi Nedarim 30:2) have made almost extreme statements about its importance. In fact, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” could arguably be the most important command of the entire parsha.
Ramban, on the opening pesukim of our parsha, writes that in order to reach a level of “קדושים תהיו,” one must go beyond the topics mentioned in Kedoshim. One could say that it is relatively straightforward to reach the level of “קדושים תהיו.” All it takes is following the commandments mentioned in the sedrah: fearing G-d, keeping Shabbat, respecting parents, and staying away from immoral evils- keeping these would seem to be a fulfillment of this first passuk. However, Ramban writes, the key to living a life of קדושה is much more than this- the מצות are only the tip of the iceberg, and a true עובד השם who lives on this level is one who takes the attitude of “קדושים תהיו” into his daily life. One who does not understand this will technically fulfill the מצות, but only at the level of a נבל ברשות התורה, a layman. In order to reach the higher level of “קדושים תהיו,” one must extend himself and go לפנים משורת הדין, beyond the letter of the law. This means going beyond the realm of the guidelines in our sidra and the rest of the Written and Oral Law- it means trying to replicate “כי קדוש אני ה’ אלקיכם” outside of the Bet Midrash, in our daily lives.
Ramban’s lesson seems particularly important in the context of “ואהבת לרעך כמוך.” One could reasonably say that the extent of this vague command is merely to love a fellow Jew- not to respect them, not to be nice to them, not to even show them any outward signs of affection, but to love them “deep down” and treat them conversely in order to “help them.” However, this level of fulfillment would reflect the נבל בתורה mentioned in the Ramban- a person who fulfills the basic requirement of ואהבת לרעך כמוך without trying to echo the message of the mitzva. It is clear that in order to reach the level of “קדושים תהיו,” we must go לפנים משורת הדין for this crucial mitzva, and show the utmost levels of respect and love to each and every Jew that we encounter and meet, no matter what their background.
Last week, we began the seven-week period of Sefirat Ha’omer, a time of mourning which the Gemara in Yevamot famously attributes to the deaths of hundreds of Rabbi Akiva’s students, because they were not properly respecting each other. It is ironic that Rabbi Akiva’s students were specifically the ones that were plagued with בין אדם לחבירו issues given that their teacher emphasized this idea of “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” so much. One could conclude that perhaps Rabbi Akiva’s students were not all reaching the highest levels of this mitzva, which might be why they were punished so harshly for not respecting each other. Jumping forward several hundred years, our world contains a lot of unity, but not necessarily the good kind. Scarcely eight days into the Sefira, our cousins have decided to unite (see Wednesday’s announcement of the PA ‘government’ merging with Hamas)- it is no coincidence that this happened during a period of mourning the lack of Jewish cooperation. We need the zechut of our unity in order to continue, and in order to merit Redemption from the impending struggles. In our day and age, “קדושים תהיו” is no longer an optional command- we all need to try our best to fulfill “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” to the highest levels, not only knowing but also feeling the love. If we all put our best effort into this, then, with Hashem’s help, we will merit a גאולה שלמה very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.