The Challenge of Loving One’s Neighbor

And the L-rd spoke all of these things saying:  (Sefer Shemot 20:1) 

  1. Serving Hashem through how we treat one another

The central element of the parsha is the Decalogue – the Aseret HaDibrot. The Decalogue is composed of ten statements which include a number of commandments. Why were these commandments selected by Hashem to be presented to the assembled nation and to be engraved on two tablets of stone?  Rabbeinu Sa’adia and others suggest that all of the Torah’s 613 commandments can be subsumed within the ten statements of the Decalogue.

The Decalogue reflects the diversity of the Torah’s commandments and gives expression to one of the most remarkable aspects of our religious perspective.  Our service and commitment to Hashem is inseparable from our responsibility to one another.  The Decalogue commands us to serve Hashem exclusively and also admonishes us to not steal from one another or covet our neighbor’s possessions. We can only serve Hashem if we honor and love one another.

 

Do not covet you neighbor’s wife, his servant, his maid-servant, his ox, his donkey, and anything that is your neighbor’s.  (Sefer Shemot 20:13)

  1. How does one escape jealousy?

The Decalogue orders us to not covet our neighbor’s spouse or possessions.  Many of the commentators ask how the Torah can require that we regulate our feelings.  How can we suppress the involuntary reaction of coveting?  One of the interesting responses to this question is formulated by Rav Yoel Frumkin[1]. His comments deal with both coveting and other forms of jealousy.  He explains that jealousy is a consequence of twisted thinking. He enumerates a number of perverse ideas that underlie jealousy.  Among these notions is one that we would not naturally associate with jealousy.  He points out that we are all brothers and sisters.  We should rejoice in each other’s success and exhilarate in each other’s accomplishments.  If instead our happiness is overwhelmed by our jealousy, then we demonstrate a complete lack of fraternal love.[2]

Let us consider this insight.  The members of a family will inevitably have their rivalries. But in a healthy family these rivalries are tempered by the identification that the members have with one another. If one receives an honor or is appointed to a position of esteem the other siblings might feel an instinctual pang of jealousy but these siblings will recognize that they should rejoice in the success of their brother or sister.  So, any jealousy would be tempered by their sense of fraternity.  Bnai Yisrael is a family. We are a nation of brothers and sisters.  Perhaps, a passing pang of jealousy is natural.  But the harboring of this jealousy and its persistence indicates a sad lack of fraternal love.

 

And they said to one another:  We are certainly guilty for our brother – that we saw the sorrow of his soul when he pleaded to us and we did not listen.  Therefore, this affliction has come upon us.  (Sefer Beresheit 42:21)

  1. Compassion for those we must scorn

How far does the obligation to love one another extend? One of the most remarkable implications of our duty to love one another emerges from considering the sin of Yosef’s brothers. The brothers considered killing Yosef.  They reconsidered and instead, sold him into servitude.  Eventually, the brothers recognized that they had sinned in their behavior toward Yosef.  They articulated this realization.  But the brothers’ description of their sin is bewildering. We would expect them to confess that they had sinned in selling their brother into servitude.  They do not focus on selling Yosef. Instead, the brothers declare that they sinned in disregarding Yosef’s pleas.  Why did the brothers focus on this aspect of their behavior?

Rabbeinu Ovadia Sforno explains that the brothers clearly remembered the deliberations that led to taking action against Yosef.  To them, it was apparent that Yosef was self-absorbed and determined to dominate them. They understood that the sons of Yaakov had a destiny and they feared that Yosef would attempt to pervert that destiny for his own purposes.  It was obvious to them that their father did not understand Yosef or the threat that he posed to their nascent nation. They felt that they were ethically compelled to remove Yosef from the family before he destroyed it.

The brothers did not condemn themselves for the action that they took against Yosef.  They acted according to their understanding of the threat posed by Yosef and out of their commitment to the highest values.  But, they did recognize that they had sinned in their callousness toward their brother.  They declared, “How were we not moved by the cries of our brother?  Why did we not recognize the tragedy of selling our own brother?  Why were we not horrified by the prospect of cutting off our own flesh and blood?”  They did not reproach themselves for the actions they took against Yosef; they condemned their cruelty, their insensitivity, their callousness.[3]

This is a profound message.  When they sold Yosef the brothers believed that they had no other choice.  They concluded that it was imperative to sever him from the family.  They believed that their extreme measures were not only justified but demanded.  Yet, they sinned in their callousness.  They failed to recognize the tragedy in a brother acting against a brother.

How great is our obligation to love one another!  Even when we must condemn or even eliminate from our community one its members, we must be aware of our brotherhood and mourn the tragedy of our loss.

If we must feel this fraternal bond even with one who deserves to be excised from our community, how great is our obligation to treat every Jew with love and compassion!  Brothers and sisters do not always agree.  Sometimes their differences are irreconcilable. Only the most extreme circumstances justify turning our backs toward another Jew.  And if, G-d forbid, that circumstance should befall us, we should feel heart-broken as we turn away from one of our own.

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[1] Rav Yoel Frumkin was a student to Rav Chaim Volozhin. He is best known for his commentary on mishnah.

[2] Rav Yoel Frumkin, Final testament.  Included in Asher Yitzaveh, Editor: Anonymous, pp. 16-17.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 42:21.  See also ibid. 37:25.