Loving Like Yourself

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Taking a break from the more intimidating discussion of sexual immorality, let us discuss a topic that is far more important and relevant.

What do you imagine is the most important commandment in the Torah? The Ten Commandments? “Thou shalt not kill”?

Certainly one of the most famous and oft-quoted verses in today’s social culture is one from last week’s Parshah: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.”⁠ [1] (The penalty for this prohibition appears in this week’s Parshah of Kedoshim.) [⁠2] This verse received renewed attention and Duck Dynasty fame in connection with recent developments in the legal status of homosexual unions.

But this is by no means the most important of the commandments, and is no more prominent than, for example, the prohibitions against eating blood, shaving or tattooing (also in this week’s Parshah).

No, the most important commandment in the Torah addresses something far more essential than our sexual dalliances. And it, too, is in this week’s Parshah.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”⁠ [3]

“R’ Akiva says: ‘This is a fundamental all-inclusive principle of the Torah.’”⁠ [4]

Now, the word “neighbor” in this verse is universally understood as not referring to your geographic neighbor, the people who live on either side and across the street from you, the person that you wave to as you walk up the pathway to your house each day. Rather, “neighbor” in this context means your spiritual neighbor, those with whom you share the burden and privilege of these commandments; i.e., your fellow Jews.⁠ [5]

When one considers the way people treat each other today, one would never imagine that the very Torah that they routinely rely upon to support their many positions, opinions and judgments, would actually require a fundamental reordering of their priorities.

To reiterate: loving your neighbor is a fundamental all-inclusive principle of the Torah. In other words, it is not merely an important commandment — or even the most important commandment out of many. It is a commandment that embodies and that reflects all of the other commandments.

There are several others in this week’s Parshah that belong to the same essential theme:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart.”⁠ [6]

“You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people.”⁠ [7]

“You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. [⁠8]”

Egad! Imagine sitting down to take the righteousness test. One person may be all hyped-up and prepared to give a long dissertation regarding evolving sexual mores, a culture of inclusiveness, and our right to self-identify. Another person is prepared to deliver a written sermon on sexual immorality, the evils of self-indulgence, and the deteriorating moral fabric of society. Each person turns to the first page of the test and sees, to his/her utter dismay, that the first question is: to what extent do you truly love your neighbors — all of them, not just your friends? The second question is: how often do you speak about another person in an unflattering way? How would we do on that test?

Indeed, speaking of gossip, the Talmud candidly acknowledges the “three sins from which no person is spared each day: sinful thoughts, distractions in prayer, and evil gossip.”⁠ [9] Yet, despite its unfortunately prevalence, the rabbis of the Talmud had no sympathy for those who spoke ill of another. In fact, they saw such gossip as so destructive that they characterized it as being just as grave as the three cardinal sins of idol worship, incest and murder⁠ [10]!

In fact, wasn’t it Eleanor Roosevelt who once said: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”?

Then there is the famous story told of Hillel, the preeminent teacher of Israel in the first century BCE, who was asked by a prospective convert to Judaism to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel’s response? “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah — the rest is commentary. Go forth and study.”⁠ [11]

Hillel was by no means alone in this sentiment. Talmudic literature is replete with exhortations that we behave toward each other with love and warmth, and cautioning us not to judge each other.

Another famous statement of Hillel’s: “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.”⁠ [12]

And a similar statement by R’ Yehoshua ben Perachiah: “judge every man to the side of merit.” [⁠13]

In later generations, Jewish leadership emphasized that judging each other favorably was not merely a matter of being charitable; all too often, we ourselves suffer from far too many flaws to sit in judgment of another.

Thus, the Talmud admonishes, “your own blemish you should not attribute to your friend”; somewhat akin to the adage that “people in glass houses don’t throw stones.” More recently, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained that every Jew is a mirror. If you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is because your own imperfection is demanding recognition and correction.

One of my own favorites is this one: “Don’t judge me just because I sin differently than you.” Isn’t that exactly right? Do I honestly believe that because my set of urges and temptations are different than yours, that they are better than yours? That I am better than you? If I am not tempted by what tempts you, how can I possibly speak to the inner battle that must rage inside of you, and how can I possibly judge the outcome?

And this, of course, is the meaning of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Why didn’t the Torah simply suffice with “love your neighbor”?

Because we are very good at loving ourselves. Ourselves, we see in context. We understand ourselves, our weaknesses, our strengths; our failures and successes; our dreams and our nightmares. When we act, we act with complex motives, with myriad reasons — both conscious and subconscious — behind every decision. We view our behavior against a rich background of deep colors and subtle patterns.

Yet, somehow, when we evaluate someone else’s actions, we view them as stark, one-dimensional things. Another person is entitled to only one — perhaps two — reasons for their conduct. We assume those motives to be the most unflattering, of course, and we shake our head and disgust at the other person’s capacity for sin.

Hence the commandment to love each other as we do ourselves: giving each other the same benefit of the doubt that we do ourselves, seeing each other in the full context of our complex personalities and backgrounds.

This is the core and essence of the Torah. As we discussed here, the Torah’s commandments are aimed at helping us transcend our corporeal limitations and weaknesses; and loving each other as we do ourselves is both the means to achieving that end, and the it is the end in and of itself.

Works Cited

1 Leviticus, 18:22.

2 Leviticus, 20:13

3 Leviticus, 19:18.

4 Genesis Rabbah, 24; Torat Kohanim, 19:45.

5 That is not to say that one may in any way justify being unkind to non-Jews. It simply means that thrust and scope of this particular commandment governs the relationship among Jews.

6 Leviticus, 19:17.

7 Leviticus, 19:18.

8 Leviticus, 19:16.

9 Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 164b.

10 Babylonian Talmud, Arachin, 15b.

11 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

12 Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4.

13 Ethics of the Fathers, 1:8.