LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF
There are two well-known verses in the Torah which contain the word V’ahavta, translated as You shall Love…
One of these is the verse which follows the Shema. V’ahavta Et… You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.
The other verse appears in this week’s parasha: V’ahavta L’rayacha Kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Many commentators have discussed the differences and similarities between loving God and loving our neighbor. But, I want to focus on something different; one way in which the words of the verse are remarkable grammatically in the Hebrew.
In the verse from Deuteronomy commanding us to love God, we see the expected use of the verb to love, as a transitive verb followed by a direct object. The word “et” in Hebrew does not have any meaning in and of itself- it is a marker introducing a direct object and this is what we would expect to see and see in most all cases.
But, in the verse from our parasha about loving your neighbor, we see v’ahavta, and you shall love, followed by the prefix “l…” the Hebrew letter lamed which is a prefix meaning “to”. So, instead of reading the verse as you should “love your neighbor”, it literally means “love to your neighbor”.
Many of the commentators treat this grammatical oddity as indicating that instead of focusing on “loving” our neighbor as an emotional issue, we should read it as one focusing on action. So, we should understand the verse as meaning: “Show love to your neighbor” or “Act in loving ways to your neighbor”.
Let’s think about this further.
In the verses from the chapter in Leviticus before the commandment to love your neighbor, we read a long list of interpersonal mitzvot including: “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind”, “Do not curse the deaf”, “Don’t hold a grudge” etc. These could be seen as specifics (pratim) and our verse about loving your neighbor which follows as the “klal”, the general statement. In the system of Jewish legal interpretation, if specifics are followed by a general statement, the specifics should be seen only as examples, not an exhaustive list. So, here the general statement can only be understood as reflecting interpersonal actions like the ones mentioned in the chapter and others similar to them.
This is reflected in a statement of Rabbi Akiva who is quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud as saying: that love your neighbor as yourself is “klal gadol baTorah”, a great general principle in the Torah. If it is a klal, it is a general principle of action not of emotion.
And, in the famous Talmudic story of Hillel’s response to the individual who came to him asking him to teach him the Torah while he was standing on one foot, Hillel says: “what is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.
So, it is reasonable to think of this verse as referring to action. “Act with love to your neighbor.”
But, this presents us with a problem.
If we translate it this way, what do we do with the word “kamocha“, as yourself. How do we understand “as yourself” in this context?
One way to understand this is: “Act in loving ways to your neighbor and act in loving ways to yourself”.
This is important. We should be careful to treat ourselves lovingly and respectfully.
But, I want to take it in a different direction and in order to do so, I want to refer to a teaching from Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers.
Pirke Avot teaches that there are four types of people. The first listed is the one who says: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” and the other three are the different permutations of those two ideas. Pirke Avot identifies the person who says; “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” as the average person. But, then Pirke Avot adds that “some say this was the attitude of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah”, the evil cities destroyed by God in a story from Genesis.
This reflects an extensive rabbinic tradition that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah ignored those in need and did not practice hospitality.
But, there is a jarring commentary by the classic fifteenth century Mishna commentator Rav Ovadiah Mibartanura. He connects his commentary to the first part of the statement in Pirke Avot, before he comments on the statement about Sodom and Gomorrah.
He says the person who says What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours” is saying the following: “I will not do anything for your benefit” and “would that you won’t do anything for my benefit.” (using the word alivay, which we sometimes translate as “God willing”).
This is a chilling commentary.
Who would possibly say: “I hope you don’t do anything to benefit me”?
Unfortunately, we do hear people say this or act this way and maybe we have said it.
Often we are reluctant to accept help, compassion or support from others. Perhaps we are afraid of being “beholden” to another person. Perhaps we are insulted by the insinuation that we might need help. Perhaps we feel it is a sign of weakness to accept help or support.
These are all very dangerous attitudes. We should be willing to accept the love, support and compassion of others when it is offered to us.
So, to return to the verse from our Parasha, I would interpret it in this way. “Show love to your neighbor and accept the loving acts offered to you”.
Many of us have found ways to reach out to others during this terrible ordeal brought on by the Covid19 pandemic. We have made calls, written notes, donated to charities, and given an extra tip to those whom we depend upon. These acts should make us feel as we are fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to show love to our neighbor.
But, in addition to acting with love to others, we should be gladly and graciously accepting love shown to us by others.
A few days ago, I received a phone call from a woman who runs a program that I volunteer with. She said she was calling just because she hadn’t heard from me after a recent email and wanted to make sure I was OK.
My first reaction was to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable about the call. After all, I’m fine. Then, I realized how wonderful that call was, how it made me feel cared for and appreciated and it, literally, made my day. I thanked the person who called and still think of that call and others like it over these long days.
So, the bottom line is that while we continue to do good and loving things for others, let us make sure that when we are the recipient of an act of kindness, we realize what a wonderful occasion that is. We should be gracious and appreciative for that love we receive and realize we are helping others fulfill the mitzva in their own way.
When the time comes that we can get back to some form of “normal” activity (and that time should only come when it is safe to do so), let us carry from this ordeal the reminder of how important is to act lovingly to others and how important it is to receive loving acts openly and gladly.
If I were writing an interpretative translation of the Torah, I know what I would write as my translation for Leviticus 19:18. I would lovingly use the words of Bob Dylan: “Always do for others and let others do for you”.
May understanding this simple statement be one of the legacies of 2020.