Social distancing, scavenging the stores for flour and toilet paper, scouring the internet for masks and gloves, it feels at times as though we are in a bad episode of “Survivor Island: the COVID edition”. It’s each man for himself and too bad so sad for everyone else. In truth, while we worry about others – society’s more vulnerable, our seniors, and so on, well, we worry more about ourselves. What can we do anyway? It’s not like we can leave the house. Plus, if I don’t worry about myself, who will? It is a sad statement but unfortunately, for many, a very human and very honest one. As songwriter Laurence Conway wrote, “Save yourself some pain/Join in – there’s no shame/Everyone’s out for themselves.”
This week, in Parashat Kedoshim, we read the famous verse: “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). This simple statement has perplexed many commentators and sparked many, many interpretations. For, as Ramban points out, it is in fact very difficult to love another as we love ourselves.
The interpretations abound. Most famously, Rabbi Akiva states that this mitzvah is in fact the fundamental rule of the Torah (Nedarim 9:4). For him, no other principle covers the gamut of the Torah as well. Yet Rabbi Akiva also says, “Your life comes before your brother’s life” (Bava Metzia 72). Along comes Hillel who paraphrases the verse, stating that “What is hateful to you, do not do to others” (Shabbos 31a). Thus, we can understand that the verse implies not to do any harm, physical or financial, to another. The Torah is asking us to want for others the same level of success as we want for ourselves. Once again, this is difficult, as no matter how well we wish someone, we wish better for ourselves.
The Alter of Slobodka said, “The commandment is to love others ‘kamocha’, as you love yourself: instinctively, without reason”. Alternatively, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Kopitchinitz suggests that this commandment is for us to love those that are not easy to love. Ben Petura goes a step further referring to this principle as “the book of the generations of man”. It is not merely to avoid doing harm and showing rachamim or mercy, but must include positive acts of kindness, gomlei chassadim.
As with any quote, oftentimes, the context is left out. It is important to remember that the words following “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” are “I am Hashem” (Vayikra, 19:18). We are asked to remember that we are all created by G-d. The prophet Malachi states, “Have we not all one father? Has not one G-d created us? Why should we deal treacherously every man against his brother, profaning and breaking the covenant of our forefathers?”(Malachi 2:10).
Rabbi Twerski highlights the words of Rabbi Akiva who calls this “fundamental principle” a klal gadol. Klal Gadol means all-encompassing principle. Thus, if this passuk is the klal, then all 613 mitzvot should make up part of the characteristics of the klal. Hence, every mitzvah must be performed with Ahavat Yisrael in order to be considered to be properly performed. Even when we pray, we should share our prayers with all of Israel. He reminds us as well of the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. Rabbi Dessler writes that it is not that we give to those we love, but rather we love to whom we give. “Meaning that in giving of ourselves to others, by investing ourselves in the lives of our fellow man, a part of us remains with that person and our love for them grows” (Michtave MeEliyahu vol.1).
More practically, HaKrav V’HaKabbalah offer examples of how to fulfill this mitzvah. Do not feign affection; treat others with respect; always seek the best in others; greet others with friendliness; show empathy and join in their pain; see the best in them; assist physically, even if it is not for something difficult; be ready to assist with small loans and gifts; and lastly, do not consider yourself better than others. Can you imagine such a world? I can, and I “think to myself, what a wonderful world!” (Louis Armstrong)
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School