Parshat Kedoshim (and Rosh Chodesh)
30 Nisan-1 Iyar, 5763
Have a look in this week’s parsha, and you will find what must surely be
the most famous verse in the whole Torah.
Quoted favorably (if not always observed) by people of all cultures and
creeds, it was celebrated as the root of Jewish ethics by our own great
sage, Rabbi Akiva. All of us have heard the famous words since
kindergarten, if not before, though chances are that many of us (myself
included) have not expended much energy figuring out what they really
Enough introduction, ladies and gentlemen. I proudly present to you the
following commandment of the Torah, taken from Leviticus 19, 18, as it is
usually (and we’ll see, misleadingly) translated. [Drum roll, please!]
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." [Wild applause, flashbulbs
Now that the fanfare is out of the way, let’s place this verse--really,
part of a verse-- in the proper context. It was taught by Moshe to an
assembly of ALL the Jewish people together--a departure from the usual
procedure by which he taught them the Torah in the desert--, along with
numerous commandments relating to our interpersonal conduct. (They include
admonitions against all types of theft, extortion, and business deception,
and against speaking gossip…among many more.) The gathering commenced with
the general directive, "Be holy," kedoshim t’hiyu, a signal of the central
importance of this section of the Torah, inasmuch as the concept of
"holiness" hearkens back to our original acceptance of the Covenant at
Sinai, and our very mission as a people. ("And now," G-d says, "if you
hearken well to Me and observe My covenant…you shall be to Me a kingdom of
priests and a holy nation.") Some commentators explain that after having
been given, in the preceding portions of Leviticus, the commandment to
bring holiness into our marital lives (through observing the laws of
sexual morality) and into our dietary habits (through observing the laws
of kashrus), the Jewish people are now commanded to bring holiness into
the social and commercial realm.
Rashi quotes the rabbinical teaching that this section of the Torah was
taught en masse to the Jewish people because it contains (in encapsulated
form) the majority of the fundamental principles of the Torah. (Other
commentators point out that all of the 10 Commandments are alluded to here
as well.) In the words of Rabbi Eli Munk, in his beautiful anthology, The
Call of the Torah, this parsha "represents the climax of Torah
legislation…[and] a beacon which sends rays of the holiness-ideal over the
whole panorama of human existence."
So, loving your neighbor as yourself, has some pretty distinguished
company in the form of the other lofty ideals communicated in this
portion. Or, put another way, it articulates a beautiful general
perspective on relating to our fellow man, while surrounding it are some
(very important) details on how to carry that out in our specific
Now it’s time to clarify the real meaning of the words in the Hebrew,
though I anticipate some of you might be a bit let down at first. (I do
hope that’s only temporary, but in any case, we can’t pervert the meaning
of our Torah to suit our preconceived notions.) The full verse is as
follows: "Do not take revenge, and do not bear a grudge against the
members of your people; you shall love your fellow [or, close companion—reacha,
in Hebrew] as yourself—I am Hashem." (Leviticus: 19, 18; my emphasis)
It does not say, "your neighbor" (which is shachen, in Hebrew), but
rather, "your companion," or "your fellow" (re’ah). The specific
commandment is to love your fellow Jew as you love yourself, i.e., the one
who is your close companion in keeping the Torah, as is quite clear from
the context. The verse is talking about how we are to act and feel towards
Now before you good-hearted, humanity-loving folks start hurling tomatoes
at me (or drowning me with indignant e-mails), let me explain. The fact
that G-d gave us, in this verse, a specific commandment to love our fellow
Jews in no way implies (Heaven forbid!) that we are supposed to hate
non-Jews! It is our Torah, remember, that taught the world that all human
beings are created in the image of the one G-d, and that we are all
descendants of one couple. We are enjoined in countless places, both in
Scripture and in the Oral Tradition, to treat all people with respect, to
work together with our gentile neighbors in peace and harmony to achieve
stability in our societies. (Evildoers, and those who have outwardly shown
themselves to be enemies of our people, are obviously an exception.)
We are commanded to exemplify the high ethical ideals of our Torah in all
of our dealings with all people, both fellow Jews and non-Jews, so that we
can make G-d (and the Torah) beloved in their eyes, and be a kiddush
Hashem—sanctifying the Name of the Almighty. What’s more, many of our holy
leaders have even spoken of our obligation to love all of G-d’s Creation!
The stories told of our righteous men and women throughout the ages prove
unmistakably that they were a blessing to all mankind, and extended
themselves to help all in need.
So it’s not an issue of some xenophobic or tribal directive to treat our
own group (i.e., our fellow Jews) with favor, and look down or denigrate
the rest of mankind. The point is only that this particular commandment,
Leviticus 19, 18, does not tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but
to love our fellow Jews as ourselves. To me, it makes perfect sense. The
Torah first and foremost wants to make sure that we first love each other
(ha’levai, if only we could reach that level!!!!), because the Torah wants
us to realize that am yisrael, the Jewish people, is one body. If we Jews
are to function as a "light unto the nations," and carry out our Torah as
G-d desires, we have to be joined in bonds of love and fellowship. We
cannot fully function as Jews unless we love each other. At the same time,
of course, we respect and work with and promote the well-being of our
Or, if you prefer: Love all mankind, by all means, if you can, but at
least love your fellow Jew…your extended family.
Okay, we have to move on. (Call me if you want to discuss that point
further.) What does it mean to love our fellow Jews as ourselves?
Does it mean I should give up everything I own to make them happy?
Certainly not. That would be loving them MORE than I love myself, and
treating their legitimate needs as important to the exclusion of my own
legitimate needs. The Torah does not tell us to abandon our own
possessions, even though it commands us to give a portion of our earnings
to charity. Nor, by the way, does Judaism glorify poverty whatsoever, for
we look at wealth (honestly gained) as a blessing from G-d, to be used in
His service by doing mitzvos. (Our Sages were, however, well aware of the
dangers of losing sight of our purpose in life if we let the excessive
enjoyment of wealth and luxuries consume us.)
Does loving my fellow Jew as myself mean I have to feel the exact degree
of emotional closeness to another Jew as I feel towards myself?
Nachmanidies (Ramban), the great medieval commentator, sees that as an
unrealistic demand to make on a person. He beautifully explains that we’re
not talking primarily about a feeling of emotional closeness here (though
that is desirable), but a mode of action and behavior with regard to our
fellow Jew. This is hinted at in the verse, which literally says, "love to
your close companion as yourself" (with the prefix, lamed). In other
words, the great regard you (emotionally) feel for yourself you should
SHOW TO your fellow Jew! Just as you take care of your property, and seek
your own interests, so should you take care of the property of your fellow
Jew and seek his interests. And this will develop a feeling of emotional
closeness as well, so that one day you will truly WANT the same good
things for your fellow Jew that you WANT for yourself.
And not a bit less, stresses the Ramban. We still are not fulfilling this
commandment properly if we wish our fellow Jew wealth, for instance…but we
still want to be a bit MORE wealthy than he! If we wish him all good
things…but we still want to save the very BEST things for ourselves! No,
the ahavah, the love, that is the ultimate goal of this commandment is a
love that sets no limits, just as we set no limits with regard to
ourselves and our own hopes and ambitions. The goal: I truly want for him
(or her) the same degree of good and blessing I want for myself.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt’l, brilliantly expands on this approach,
revealing to us the great psychological insight of the Torah. (That is to
say, of the One Who created us!!) For this commandment calls on us to use
our inborn egotism, not to throw it away, to sanctify it so that we become
less selfish human beings. How so? "Love your fellow Jew as yourself."
Think, he says, of all the detailed ways you show your own love and regard
and concern for yourself. And then strive to show that same degree of
sensitivity, in all particulars, to your fellow Jew.
Love yourself, by all means, and understand just what that entails, for
each of us is deserving of love, having been created in the image of
Hashem (Who loves each one of us). But lest that turn into egotism, we are
commanded to show that love to our fellow Jews to the same extent.
As many have pointed out, if we don’t love ourselves, in a healthy sense,
then we can’t properly fulfill this mitzvah.
This is a commandment, then, that requires constant thought and effort,
both cognition and imagination. To work towards the level of seeing my
fellow Jew (and, beyond, to seeing all of mankind) as like myself, as
connected to me. Rav Dessler famously writes (in another place) that the
way we grow to feel more connected to another human being is by giving.
Indeed, he points out, the word ahavah (love, in Hebrew) contains the
root, hav, which means to give. We arrive at love by a constant, and
non-negotiable, commitment to giving.
I hope that we all really stop to think about what it means to love
ourselves, and then begin (or continue) to extend that--in thought, action
and emotion--to our fellow Jews, who truly are our immediate family.
(Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt’l, used to say that it is too hard to jump right
away to loving everybody. Start with one fellow Jew, and work on loving
him/her properly first!) If we do this, then we will be on our way to
becoming a blessing for all mankind.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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