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Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

“Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?”


Tucked in-between the verses of what is known as the “Holiness Code” that spans this and last week’s Torah portion, is one of the best-known proclamations in Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am YHVH.” [Lev. 19:18] This translation always left me perplexed. How can I be commanded to love? Is love something that can be controlled or imposed upon someone? And if my love for my neighbor is contingent on me loving myself, there may be times that my neighbor will go unloved. Surely that is not what God intends.

First, a closer look reveals that, in Hebrew, the word “neighbor” is not the direct object of the verb “love.” It is not “V’ahavta et reacha – Love your neighbor” but “V’ahavta l’reacha – Love toward your neighbor.” A better rendition of the verse might therefore be: “Act lovingly toward your neighbor as (one like) yourself; I am YHVH.” Furthermore, the Hebrew root of the word for “neighbor” can also indicate the words “evil/enemy,” or “friend/companion,” or even “shepherd.” That “neighbor” of ours could be our enemy as much as it may be our friend or a guiding presence in our life. The Hebrew leaves it open to interpretation.

Practically, however, how does one “act lovingly toward [one’s] neighbor”? Christian teachings, both in Matthew 7:12, or Luke 6:31, understand acting in such a way as: “Do unto others what you would want them to do unto you.” Yet, it turns out, such injunction is not as loving as it purports to be. There is a hidden problem that becomes apparent when we see how this “do unto others…” has been applied. It gives people the permission to impose their values and worldview on others and thus has led to—and even justified— barbaric acts including forced conversions, crusades and other violent expressions of proselytization. Foreseeing the problem such affirmative phrasing might cause long before the Gospels authors, Rabbi Hillel (1st Century BCE)—when asked to distill the essence of Torah while standing on one foot—chose, instead, to couch it in the negative: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” [B.T., Shabbat 31a] It seems that people can much more readily agree on what they don’t want done to them than what they do! Consider the endless ways this critical teaching applies to our individual lives as much as our global realities. How carelessly and devastatingly we fall short of such a simple yet profound teaching.

A Chasidic Tale takes our verse beyond the practical and into the deeply spiritual: The rebbes of Zloczow and of Nikolsburg were once debating the meaning of this verse. The latter understood why one would act lovingly toward a friend, but how to act lovingly toward an enemy who might have caused you harm? The rebbe of Zloczow responded: “You and your fellow person are a single soul. That person has done you harm due to lack of awareness [with regards to this principle]. When you strike him back, you will be hurting yourself. Think rather that everything comes from God and that God has many emissaries… The soul of every person is, as we are taught, a part of God above. Have compassion for God, since one of His holy sparks has become trapped in such a shell!” [in Speaking Torah, Leviticus, A. Green et al, p.296]

The rebbe derived this teaching from the last words in our verse: “I am YHVH.” YHVH is the “I am” that is you and me, just as it is the “I am” expressing through every “neighbor” in our life, friend or foe. Those who act in evil ways toward others have tragically forgotten the Divine spark in themselves and in others, buried it underneath the shells of the deluded separate sense of self. In order to redeem our inner Divine spark, from beneath our own ego-shells, and while maintaining healthy boundaries, Torah enjoins us to: “Act lovingly toward your neighbor as one who, like yourself, is “I am,” is YHVH.” [Lev. 19:18]