Posts Tagged ‘Loving your neighbor’

Those with fond memories of Mr. Rogers, or who have seen the recent sweet movies about him, know these lyrics he would sing, “won’t you be my neighbor.”  They represent the caring and love he was trying to teach children to have for all other people.  But as adults, many of us would prefer those lyrics to be “DON’T you be my neighbor!” We grow up to be sarcastic, judgmental, and intolerant of people who are not like us.  In the second part of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kiddushim,is perhaps the most famous quote from the Torah, one that we even argue about the meaning, “Love your fellow (or neighbor) as yourself.”  Those with a universalist philosophy say it refers to everyone. Those who are more xenophobic tend to say it is only about their people.  In today’s world we tend to let our partisanship split us into the argument. Instead of recognizing that the phrase, within the context of overall Torah teaching, contains elements of truth from both perspectives, but in a differently than we tend to think.

A fuller context is to look at the Leviticus verses 19:17 and 18.                                                                                                                                                             לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha hoche’ach tochi’ach et amitecha v’lo tisa alav cheit.

You will not hate your kinfolk in your heart, rebuke your kinsman but incur no sin on their account.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Lo tikom v’lo titor et b’nai amecha v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, ani Adonai.

You will not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.  Love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself, I am God.

These two verses are a climax in a list of moral commandments.  Our obligations are not just for us to follow them, but to help others as well.  In his commentary on these two verses, Nachmanides sees a chiastic structure between them.  For verses 17 and 18, part ‘a’ would be a prohibition, part ‘b’ a remedy, part ‘c’ a rationale.  Let’s start with part ‘a.’  Verse 17 is “You will not hate your kinfolk in your heart.” Heartfelt hatred is created by refusing to vocalize true feelings, in particular about something a person is doing wrong.  The parallel in verse 18 is, “you will not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  These actions are a product of heart-contained hatred, often leading to an even more inappropriate violent action.

Part ‘b’ in verse 17 is “rebuke your kinsman.”  If someone is doing something absolutely wrong, we must try to teach them what is correct.  Rashi comments that you do not do this in public, which exposes that person to shame.  Rather, you must do it privately.  This is extremely relevant today as too much rebuking is done on social media, creating shaming.  Part ‘c’ in verse 17 reflects how this impacts the person who either refuses to rebuke a wrongdoing, or does it in a publically shameful way – incurring a sin on the other wrong doer’s account.  It is a sin not to stand up for what is morally correct, but it must be done in a way that does not shame the person you know – as in your private conversation you may learn more about the person that you could not consider.  A further conclusion is by harboring anger; you might sin against the person you should properly reprove.

Part ‘b’ in verse 18 is “love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself.”  Nachmanides says this is a bit of an exaggeration. He cites Rabbi Akiva’s teaching from the Talmud, Bava Metzia 62, “Your life comes before the life of your fellow.” So the real meaning in this context of “loving your fellow as yourself,” is that we should want, and help, the other person to receive every benefit that we want for ourselves.  The ‘part b’s’ from each verse reflect the same obligations to others, but the first in a negative context, hatred, the other in a positive, love.  We need to rebuke, and we need to “love” the other person – meaning they deserve everything we do as long as our life is not in danger.  The act of reproving should be done out of love, not hatred.

Yet there is a deeper meaning to the act of love, which is connected to part ‘c’ in verse 18, “I am God.”  This takes us beyond the end of verse 17, avoiding sin, to the level of following the moral commandments outlined by God.  Now we can see the levels of what “loving” means.  Ibn Ezra comments that the hatred outlined in these verses is between the various Jewish people.  He points out how the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem was due to groundless hatred between Jewish groups.  Nachmanides, after quoting Rabbi Akiva presents that as the basic level of love, yet there is no limitation on how our love for others can grow.  That love can be for one of “us” or a very different person. Nachmanides points to how Abraham rebuked Avimelech in Genesis 21:25, a person not part of his people but who deserved Abraham’s caring.  In this week’s Torah portion, in the same chapter, verse 34 commands us to love strangers/aliens living among us the same way we love ourselves.  That verse also ends with the phrase, “I am the Eternal, your God” – a direct connection to the necessity of expanding “love your fellow as yourself.”

In the book of Proverbs 10:17, we are told, “He who observes musaris on the path of life, but he who refuses reproof goes astray.”  The word musaris translated in a numerous ways, most often ‘discipline,’ ‘instruction,’ or ‘morality.’ We should always interpret this word combining all three meanings.  We must have the discipline to teach in an ethical way. An ethical way to interact with a person through a rebuke is one evoked by love, not animosity, jealousy, or a lust for power.  Another way to provide love is to help them get the same benefits you have.  All of this begins in your relationships with your own people, but can and should grow to diverse relationships beyond those with whom you think are “comfortable.”  The Torah is clear that by caring beyond only our own people, we are displaying love for God.  We should be willing to sing to all other people “won’t you be my neighbor.”


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