“Loving Thy Neighbor”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot — Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we read the famous, indeed, revolutionary verse from Leviticus 19:18: “V’ah’havta l’ray’ah’cha kah’mocha, ah’nee Hashem,” You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.

This statement is universally regarded as one of the greatest pronouncements of human morality. In fact, Rabbi Akiva (Talmudic sage, 50-135 CE), is cited in the Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4, as saying that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is one of the greatest principles, if not the greatest, in the entire Torah.

It is fascinating to note that the earlier Talmudic sage, Hillel (110 BCE-10 CE), also regarded this verse as a fundamental principle. However, when he was asked by a potential proselyte to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he chose to restructure the statement in the negative. In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat 31a, Hillel told the candidate for conversion, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor–that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go study.”

Apparently, Rabbi Akiva agreed with Hillel’s sentiment, which is based on the assumption that it is virtually impossible for anyone to love another person as much as one loves oneself, and certainly not more than one loves oneself. Furthermore, Rabbi Akiva, in Baba Metziah 62a, determines in the case of two people who are in the desert with a single flask of water, that if there is only enough water for a single person to survive, the owner of the flask may drink the water. He does not have to share the water with his traveling companion, because who is to say that the companion’s life is more valuable than his own.

Many regard this verse as the basic pillar upon which the entire Torah is based. It is from this verse of loving one’s neighbor that Jewish law derives the performance of good deeds, such as visiting the sick, arranging for the burial of the dead, comforting the bereaved, providing dowries for poor brides and protecting the possessions of others as if they were their own.

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) learns from this verse that there should be no difference between what a person wishes for himself and the benefit that he wishes for his fellow human being. After all, every human being was created by G-d. Maimonidies (the Rambam, 1135-1204, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) posits that this is the reason that a person who assumes the responsibility of protecting the possessions of others is to think and feel as if he is guarding his own property.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) and the Hizzekuni (Hezkiah ben Manoah, French exegete of the 13th century) suggest that the best way to observe this commandment is to put oneself in the next person’s position. When thinking of a friend who is ill, one must say, “If I were ill myself, what would be the greatest blessing I could seek from G-d?”, and then must pray for the ill person to receive that exact blessing.

The Ba’al HaTurim (c.1275-1340, Jacob ben Asher, Germany and Spain, famed halakhist and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah) suggests that this verse teaches that one must always be sensitive to the feelings of others. For example, he states that when one is intimate with one’s wife, one should not think of another woman. One of my teachers in high school advised his “hormone-challenged” teenage male students to treat their girlfriends as they would like others to treat their sisters. (Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’m not sure that this advice would work very well today!)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Kopitchinitz (1888-1967, prominent Hassidic rabbi in Europe and New York) concluded that loving one’s neighbor is not intended to apply to saintly and righteous people, since it is almost impossible not to love them. To the contrary, this verse bids all to especially love those people whom it is hard to love. The Alter of Slabodka (Nosson Zvi Finkel, 1849-1927, famed Rosh Yeshiva in Europe and Israel and one of the leaders of the Mussar movement) used to say that the commandment to love others as oneself implies that just as a person loves himself instinctively, without the need to justify that love, one should love others as well without looking for reasons, but simply because they are fellow human beings.

There is an age-old debate regarding the so-called “parochial” nature of the Hebrew bible’s statement of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There are those who maintain that the words “V’ah’havtah l’ray’acha“, love your neighbor, limit a Jew’s love only to other Jews, as opposed to the Christian bible, which seems to expand this love to apply to all humanity.

Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire) takes strong exception to this Christian assertion. He points to the verse in Exodus 11:2, where the Jews in Egypt are instructed to ask their neighbors for jewels of gold and silver. Clearly the word “ray’ah” in that context cannot possibly mean a fellow Israelite, but must refer to Egyptians. Bernard J. Bamberger, in his commentary on the book of Leviticus, astutely points out that in ancient times few people had the opportunity to express their love to neighbors beyond those in their immediate vicinity. “Only in recent centuries, has the average person had the knowledge, or the opportunity and the obligation to apply the ‘Golden Rule’ on a global scale” (p. 893).

Rabbi Hertz argues further, that even those who do interpret “ray’ah” to refer exclusively to Jews, could not possibly deny the universal application for caring for all people that is found in Leviticus 19:34. The verse there teaches that the stranger who sojourns with you shall be unto you as a homeborn, and you shall love him as yourself. Rabbi Hertz argues that the word for stranger, “ger,” applies to all humanity, and that there is no question that every Jew is obligated to love all human beings.

The Rebbe of Sadigor (Sadagora), (Rabbi Abraham Jacob Friedman, son of the Hassidic Rebbe of Rizhin, 1819-1883), explains that the verse of loving one’s neighbor concludes with the words “Ah’nee Hashem”–-I am the L-rd, to teach that the way we treat our neighbors will be the way that we will ultimately be treated by the Al-mighty!

May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Israel’s Memorial Day, April 19th)   is observed this year on the 6th of Iyar, Monday evening, April 19th, and all day Tuesday, April 20th. (In the diaspora, some observe it one day earlier).