Why does God give us the Ten Commandments? Why does He make explicit that we are not, for example, to murder? The most obvious answer is that God commands us not to murder because human beings do murder. If we did not murder then the commandment itself would be so unnecessary.
In Kedoshim, we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Such a commandment would be equally pointless if we, as a matter of human nature, did love our neighbor. But we don’t. And God makes clear that He thinks we should.
But it is not easy to love one’s neighbor. But God is commanding us to do so because it is neither easy nor “natural”. How am I to love and respect someone who has done me harm; or someone who looks and acts differently than I do; or is someone for whom I bear a grudge?
Why not simply maintain the walls – physical, spiritual and psychological – that separate me from my neighbor? Wouldn’t that be a perfectly sensible way to go through life?
Perhaps. But God does not think so and, therefore, we are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, recognizing that the neighbor who is deserving of this love and respect is the very neighbor for whom we would most comfortably withhold such love and respect; perhaps even one we would consider an enemy.
How can God expect us to simply “love” such a one as that?
God knows us so much better than we know ourselves! God does not expect us to simply leap over the walls that exist between neighbors. He shows us a step by step path that takes us from a begrudging willingness to acknowledge our neighbor to the ultimate destination of loving him.
We begin with the admonition “not to hate your brother in your heart”. This is the first step in a series of moral-ethical injunctions which reach a climax with the imperative to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The progression is clear; begin with the double-negative, do not hate. “Not hating” is that first baby-step away from the negativity of hatefulness. Moving away from a negative must, by definition, be considered movement in a positive direction.
The first step is a negation of a negative, a positive step toward the destination which is the embrace of the fullness of a positive: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It makes sense then to assume that the laws hocheach tochiach et amitecha – to admonish your neighbor – and lo tisa alav chet – not to bear sin because of him – and lo tikom velo titor et bnai amecha – not to take revenge nor bear a grudge – must also be related to that initial statement not to hate and the ultimate mitzvah to love.
In plotting out these steps, the Torah is proving more than a simple progression. It is providing for us a blueprint, a method that allows us to acknowledge and address legitimate and recurring natural human events and feelings.
We hurt, insult and embarrass our fellow with alarming regularity, giving our fellow ample reason to hate us. The conventional man, the “good” man, does not react to hurt and insult with vengeance. Instead, he suffers in silence. Commendable, no?
No. Our “good” man is only good on the surface. His hurt and anger eat at him; darkening his soul. It is for this reason that the Torah instructs that we are not to “hate your brother in your heart.”
Hate is never sanctioned by the Torah. For those situations or actions that could result in hatred, the proper Torah response is hocheach tochiach et amitecha – admonish your neighbor. Acknowledge the behavior or act, and your own feelings, so that hatred cannot and does not define you.
Only the person who cares for a fellow Jew, who is concerned for his fellow Jew’s way of life, who suffers when another Jew fails – only such a Jew will care enough to share constructive criticism with his fellow Jew, and that kind of tochacha will be most effective because, ultimately, it comes from love. Therefore, the Torah teaches, lo tisna et achikha. After all, he is your brother, and you must love your brother. So when your brother fails, when he is down, hocheach tochiach – admonish him. Not to do so taints you with his sin. Velo tisa alav chet – and do not bear sin because of him.
Hocheach suggests not simply admonition but also open, honest communication. Abraham addressed Avimelech openly and honestly, not only because he was concerned for himself and his loved ones but also because he understood that such an approach could prevent Avimelech from carrying out his devious intentions, and avoid the hatred that Abraham would then have to bear in his own heart – vehochiach Avraham et Avimelech.
Open, honest, and loving communication – hocheach – is not merely reassuring but also instructive; not just “ideal” but also practical. The ability to criticize out of love rather than out of anger and hatred averts the future guilt of “carrying sin.”
The way to “not hate” then is not found in a series of “double negatives” – not to take revenge, not to hate, not to bear the sin – nor in the simple “positive” of the need to admonish. The goal is a more lofty and exalted one. To love.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
As much as we are driven by our animal, base instincts we are also called by the grace of our Creator. Yes, we have to overcome our instinct to hate, to respond in kind. But we are also reflection of a brighter light.
Every normal human being seeks – indeed, needs – positive reinforcement. He needs acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, patience, love. None of these can be defined as the negative of its opposite. To suggest that acceptance is the same as “not being shunned,” or that forgiveness is the same as “not being blamed” is foolish. These positive, human needs rise to a qualitative level that far exceeds any double-negative.
And so the Torah articulates a process that begins with the avoidance of the negative and then, in its most brilliant and ultimate emanation, is revealed as the most positive statement of human posture in the world possible.
We all need to know we are loved as surely as we need air to breathe and water to drink. It is a vital, fundamental, physical, spiritual and emotional need.
Yes, we sometimes require admonition and benefit from constructive criticism. We are reassured in knowing that we are not hated. But it is only by being loved that we realize the fullness of what it means to be human.
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Rabbi Akiva taught that “to love your neighbor…” is, “the great general principle of the Torah.”
A famous Talmudic episode tells of a prospective convert coming to both Shammai and Hillel, willing to convert if he could be taught the “whole of Judaism” while standing on one foot. Shammai sent him away in anger but Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now, go and master it.”
Hillel’s response, as direct and satisfying as it first appears, suggests that the Torah commandment is fraught with emotional and practical difficulties. After all, he restates the Torah command but in the negative. He is aware that it is man’s tendency to care more about himself than others – adam karov le’atzmo. That is the rabbinic, halachic position. “Your life takes precedence over your fellow man’s.” It must be thus. For how can we truly love another if we do not love ourselves first? And yet, the Torah obligates us to love our fellow man as ourselves.
It seems impossible. But it cannot be impossible. For the Torah would not instruct us to do something beyond our capabilities. It must be doable to love our neighbor as ourselves. The difficulty then must be in our understanding of exactly what is meant by this command.
Ramban noted that it is psychologically impossible to feel about one’s neighbor as one feels for one’s self.
The phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself” is not meant literally, since man cannot be expected to love his neighbor as his own soul. Rabbi Akiva himself ruled the contrary, that “your life takes precedence over your fellow man’s.
Ramban therefore suggests on the basis of the letter lamed in the word lereacha that the phrase actually means love for your neighbor, and therefore the Torah is teaching that “we should wish our neighbor to enjoy the same that we wish for ourselves.”
Ibn Ezra likewise explains that the Torah intends one to like what is good for one’s friend the way one likes it for one’s self. That was likely Onkelos’ view when he translated, “love your neighbor as yourself…” as “and you shall have mercy on your friends as you have mercy on yourself.”
Ramban codified the mitzvah of loving your neighbor in precise halachic terms, setting boundaries which are both “realistic” and “achievable”:
It is incumbent on everyone to love every Israelite as one’s self, since it is said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus, one ought to speak in praise of one’s neighbor and be careful of one’s neighbor’s property as one is careful of one’s property, and solicitous about one’s honor.
There is much to praise in this worldview. If one lives by Ramban’s parameters then one would live an ethical life – he would not steal, damage, insult, or demean fellow human beings. In other words, he would not do those things which he would not want done to him.
The question is, whether the sum total of what one does not do adds up to what one actually does.
The Torah command is “Love your neighbor as yourself”. It is not the same thing as “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” To do the positive is not the same thing as to not do the negative.
The Torah commands that we love. The practical application of the mitzvah (ma’aseh hamitzvah) may very well be achieved through not harming, injuring, etc. However, not doing the negative is supposed to be the consequence of fulfilling the mitzvah, not the result of it.
To love is not just a benefit to the one I love, but to me as well.
So, is it humanly possible to love one’s re’ah as much as one’s self? The Ba’al haTurim and Ibn Ezra suggest that it is if we interpret re’ah to refer to one’s wife, to whom it is possible, nay, necessary to love kamocha.
To love as oneself then is to breach the great divide, to become one.