by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas Kedoshim (71)
Leviticus 19: 18
You shall not take revenge nor shall you bear a grudge against the children of your People. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Rashi: Rabbi Akiva said, this is a fundamental principle in the Torah.
This simple, well known, verse is neither simple nor easily understood! Rashi's comment is simple and straightforward. This comment is one the few exceptions to the rule that Rashi only comments to dispel difficulties in the Torah text. Rashi is not relating to a difficulty in the words of the Torah, nevertheless Rashi does comment. His message is clearly an educational one - teaching us the centrality of the mitzvah in the Torah of caring about others.
Let us now look at some difficulties with understanding the Torah's words.
I can name five.
1) How can the Torah command us to have an emotion, in this case to feel the love for another? The Torah can reasonably command us to do or refrain from doing certain actions, because our behavior is usually within our control, but emotions are much harder to control - as we all know. So our question is: How can G-d command us to love?
2) Is it even possible to love another "as ourselves". The individual sits shiva (mourning for a lost relative) when a member of his family dies, should every Jew sit shiva whenever another Jew dies, because he loves him as himself? Or, if I have $1000 and my friend has only $500 am I commanded to give him $250 so we both have an equal amount because I should love him "as myself"? This cannot be the Torah's intent. We are commanded to give only 10%, the most 20%, charity to the poor.
3) Rabbi Akiva is author of the statement that "this is a fundamental principle of the Torah." But Rabbi Akiva also said that if two people are in the desert and they only have enough water to sustain one of them, then the one who holds the water comes first "Your life first" says Rabbi Akiva! He takes the water to stay alive even though the other person will certainly die. How does this fit with loving one's neighbor as oneself?
4) We are told that Yonasson loved David "ki Ahavas nafsho ahavo" "For he loved him as he loved himself (nafsho") (Samuel I ch. 20:17). This is considered one of the most - if not the most- love between two people recorded in the Tanach. But if this is what we are all commanded to do, why is it so unusual?
5) Hillel and Shami were approached separately by a gentile who said he wanted to convert to Judaism and asked each one "Teach me the Torah on one foot." Shamai, considering this an unreasonable request, threw the man out. Hillel, the master of patience, on the other hand, taught him "What is hateful to you do not do to another. The rest is commentary - go and learn." (Talmud Shabbat 31a) This a famous quote. Why did Hillel state the mitzvah in this negative way? Why didn't he quote the verse from the Torah?
Apparently, something must be wrong with our understanding of this mitzvah.
Can you explain it?
ATTEMPTS TO UNDERSTAND THIS MITZVAH
The first question has been answered as follows: The Sefer Hachinuch (1200's) teaches the psychological principle that "After one's actions the heart follows" This means that if one acts a certain way often enough then in the course of time he will begin to emotionally identify with his actions; that is his feeling will change in accordance with his actions. Psychologists "discovered" the principle in the 1960's which they called "cognitive dissonance." So if the person follows the mitzvos which precede this commandment - don't be a gossip; don't stand idly by when someone is suffering; don't take revenge or bear a grudge - then his positive feeling (love) for his fellow man will develop and grow.
To answer the second we must reinterpret the phrase "V'ahavta l'reiacha komocha". It does not tell us the quality of our love ( love him as much as you love yourself) rather the word "kamocha" means like you - he is like you. "Love your neighbor who is like you." The proof comes from a verse further on where it says about the Ger (convert) "And you shall love him like you ("kamocha") because you were strangers ("gerim") in the land of Egypt." (verse 34). We have again the word "Kamocha" and then the verse says "because you were strangers in the lands of Egypt." What has the fact that we were strangers have to do with our obligation to love the stranger? If we had not been strangers in Egypt would we not have to be nice to the stranger? The meaning is because he is like you and you were like him - and you know how it feels. So kamocha does not mean "love him as yourself " it means "love him because he is like you."
This reinterpretation of "kamocha" also answers question # 4. Yonasson's love for David was not "kamocha" it was "as his soul" ( k'nafsho") this was truly unusual. He really loved David as much, if not more, than he loved himself. He was willing that the kingship should go to David and not to himself. This is quite unusual, and quite rare. It goes much beyond what our verses talks about.
THE BEST UNDERSTANDING
The best understanding of this commandment is gained by seeing it in its context. (Interpreting a verse in light of its context is called "davar halamaid me'inyano") In the beginning of this verse it says "Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge." And the verses before this verse stress several negative behaviors to be avoided: Do not be a gossip; don't stand idly by when someone is suffering.
So its best meaning is not to do negative things against your neighbor. This is both reasonable and textually supported.
In view of this we understand Hillel's answer to the convert. Hillel also stressed avoiding doing bad things to others. This is not different from the Torah's verse; it is right in line with the Torah's commandment.
This also explains Rabbi Akiva's apparently contradictory statements. On the one hand, the importance of loving another and on the other, his decision to place "your life first" and allowing one to drink his limited reserves of water in the desert even if the consequence is that the other person dies of thirst. Rabbi Akiva is in favor of such behavior because the person has done nothing intentionally negative to his friend. Certainly he may not take the water from him if it belonged to him in the first place. The case is where the water belonged to the person who is enjoined to be concerned about his own life first.
In this way we have answered all the questions above and gained a reasonable understanding of this fundamental mitzvah.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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