In the second portion of this week’s double parsha, Acharei-Kedoshim, we find one of the Torah’s most well-known, but least comprehended, verses:
:וְאָֽהַבְתָּ לְרֵֽעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha.
You shall love your fellow as yourself.
So fundamental is this verse that it has been identified by Rabbi Akiva as the “klal gadol baTorah/all-inclusive principle of Torah” (Torat Kohamim 19:45). Judaism’s guiding light for millennia, it is applicable always, but it is all the more relevant and imperative at this moment of tremendous tension and division in Israel and the world. Is it really possible to love our fellow when there are so many vital issues and beliefs that distinguish and estrange us? Is the Torah’s “klal gadol” still realistic and actionable in this age of political deadlock and social stratification?
Beyond Jewish tradition, this concept of loving one’s neighbor as oneself has been referred to as “the golden rule,” an ethic of kindness and empathy which urges generosity of spirit. It is said that every major religion or philosophy contains some version of the golden rule. But while the Torah verse is equated with similarly themed statements in other traditions, these comparisons fail to identify nuances which differentiate the Torah’s specific language and which reveal an additional layer of meaning that provides us not only ethical guidance, but also a profound mystic truth.
The ancient Greek admonition “Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you” (Isocrates); the Christian “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12); the Hindu “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self” (Mahabharata Book 13); and the Muslim “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them” (Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146) – all of these bear thematic similarities to the Torah’s verse from Leviticus. However, they are more similar to a line from the Talmud in which Hillel the Elder responds to a man who asks him to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot:
.דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד – זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ ,וְאִידַּךְ פֵּירוּשַׁהּ הוּא, זִיל גְּמוֹר
Da’alach s’nei l’chavrecha la ta’aveid. Zo hi kol haTorah kula, v’idach peirusha hi, zil g’mor.
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and learn.
(Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)
The statement from Leviticus differs from all of these in that a) it refers specifically to love, which they do not, and b) it is a commandment, not a maxim or even an ethical advisory. This raises two obvious questions: First, how can one be commanded to love? While it is understood that actions can be legislated – for example, treat others, or do not treat others, in such and such a way – it is difficult to comprehend how an emotion like love can be mandated. Secondly, how is it possible to fulfill such a commandment? Can one truly love another as much as one loves her/himself?
One who takes these questions seriously must conclude that “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha/love your fellow as yourself” is more than a simple directive. As the Sages point out frequently, the word “תּוֹרׇה/torah” is derived from the term “הוֹרׇאׇה/horaah,” which means learning or instruction. Though Torah is often viewed primarily as a book of law, it is in fact an instrument of development and connection. Therefore, it is not only impossible that the Torah would issue an edict that we would be unable to fulfill, but additionally, as a book of instruction, the Torah would not require us to do something without providing insight into how that requirement can be satisfied. “Love your fellow as yourself,” therefore, is not merely commanding us to love, but it is furthermore revealing the deep secret of love’s nature and essence. The verse tells us not only that we should love our fellow, but also why we should do so and how we can do so.
Why should one “v’ahavta l’reiacha/love your fellow” – because s/he is “kamocha/as yourself.” How can one “v’ahavta l’reiacha/love your fellow” – by recognizing that s/he is “kamocha/as yourself.” The key here, and the key to love in general, is to understand that “kamocha/as yourself” in this verse does not merely mean ‘similar to you,’ or even ‘identical to you,’ but also ‘one with you.’ On the simple level, the verse may be exhorting us to love others because they are just as desirous, or deserving, of love as we are. On a somewhat deeper level, it is encouraging us to love others just as generously and forgivingly as we love ourselves. But on its deepest level, the verse is instructing us that it is possible to truly love an other only when we recognize that that other is not simply like ourself, but that s/he is veritably the same as oneself because in essence we are one!
Just as our ultimate self is nothing but Godliness, so too, our fellow is only Godliness as well. The gematria (numerological value) of the word “אַהֲבׇה/ahava/love” is equivalent to “אֶחׇד/echad/one” (both words equalling 13). When we recognize that the other is truly one and the same as myself, then love will arise effortlessly. It is not difficult to love another as oneself when we identify that the other is undifferentiated from oneself. In fact, this is the only way to achieve love in its most true and ultimate sense. We can desire an other. We can sympathize and empathize with an other. We can even give altruistically to an other. But the Torah is teaching us that we can only truly love, in the most profound and divine sense of the term, when we understand that the other is not in fact an other at all.
The commandment of “love your fellow as yourself,” therefore, is not compelling an emotion, for you cannot demand one to feel a certain way. It is rather obligating us to meditate on the reality of our unity and to cultivate this awareness so that love will arise naturally and constantly. This is one of the primary functions of prayer. Torah Prayer, the mystics teach, is not merely about requesting our needs from God, but rather reconnecting with Him through deeply contemplating our essential Godly nature. This contemplation similarly enables us to reconnect with one another and with the entire creation when we meditate on God’s oneness and the inter-inclusion of all things. The crux of prayer is moving inward to find the “nitzotz Elokus/spark of God” within our “pnimyus/innermost depths,” and recognizing that this Godly essence is likewise within the “pnimyus” of everything that we will encounter in the day ahead. With this, love will surge from our core and will radiate from us to embrace and enflame all of those around us.
Regardless of our political leanings, our religious background, our social status or our personal persuasions, we are one. Beneath the surface, we all have the same color blood and flesh, and even deeper within us we are comprised of the identical Godly light. We are not merely similar, and we are not only related. Every one of us is “kamocha/like yourself” because there is only One infinite self that exists within the deepest recess of all beings and all things. This is what the Shema prayer ultimately expresses in its conclusion“Hashem echad/God is One.”
It is our task to manifest this quintessential truth. When we do so, it will not be difficult to love even if we disagree. We are various limbs of one body. As such, each of us has a unique perspective to offer and a unique role to play. Diversity, therefore, is not a problem to be countered but a tremendous strength to be embraced. To love your fellow as yourself is not simply to accept the other in spite of her/his differences, but to recognize that these differences complement and benefit you because they are a part of you as you are part of everything that is, was, and ever will be.