Some people are hard to love.
The word “love” in English and the word ahavah (אַהֲבָה) in Biblical Hebrew have the same wide scope, including all four of the types of love distinguished in Classical Greek: agapé (selfless devotion to the welfare of another), eros (sensual desire for and attachment to another person, or enthusiastic attachment to a pleasurable activity), philio (mutual affection and harmony between friends), and storgé (fondness for familiar people, animals, and places).
This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holiness”), commands the agapé type of love, devotion to the welfare of another—even when warm feelings do not arise naturally, and the only reward is knowing you are doing the right thing.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your fellow person, so you shall not carry guilt because of him. You shall not take revenge and you shall not hold a grudge against the members of your people; ve-ahavta lerei-akah kamokha; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:17-18)
ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = and you shall love, and you shall be loving.
lerei-akha (לְרֵעֲךָ) = to your colleague, to your fellow.
kamokha (כָּמוֹךָ) = like you, like yourself, as yourself.
The phrase ve-ahavta lerei-akha kamokha is often translated as “and you shall love your fellow as yourself”. The problem with this translation is that the word rei-akha has the prefix le-, which is the preposition “to”. So a more literal translation is: And you shall be as loving to your fellow as you are to yourself.
In other words, you are not required to feel love for your fellow humans, only to act loving toward them. If the fellow in question is someone you are in love with (eros), or a friend (philio), or a familiar person you have grown fond of (storgé), then it is usually easy to act loving toward them. But what about someone you are not fond of, someone who has wronged you?
This week’s Torah portion calls for agapé (devotion to the welfare of another) for those who have wronged us. We are forbidden to take revenge, and we we forbidden to hold a grudge. We may not feel love for them, but we must act as if we did, and at least banish any feeling of hatred.
We must reprove them for what they did, and then, even if they neither apologize nor make amends, we must let go of our anger. On top of that, we must devote ourselves to their welfare as we do to our own welfare.
Does this mean I have to spend just as much time and energy on improving the lot of my antagonists as I do on improving my own lot? Oy, vey! My time and my energy are limited, and I do not want to stint on doing good things for myself, my family, and my friends so I can give equal time to people who I barely know and people who are not good to me. Anyway, why should I do anything good at all for someone who wronged me? Isn’t it enough to do no harm?
Maybe “And you shall be as loving to your fellow as you are to yourself” does not mean “And you shall be loving to your fellow [exactly as much as you are loving to] yourself”. It could also be translated: “And you shall be loving to your fellow, [who is] like yourself”. The classic commentary reminds us that we, too, are fallible, and we, too, make moral mistakes. If we can nevertheless be loving to ourselves, we can be loving to our fellows the same way.
Yet sometimes this argument is not enough. Sometimes you feel too upset about the other to be loving. Sometimes you feel too ashamed to be loving to yourself. Then what? The book of Genesis/Bereishit says we are all created in the image of God. Jewish kabbalah says we all contain divine sparks; we are all part of God. 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that since human beings are part of God and God wants us to perfect ourselves, it is our duty to devote care both to our own welfare and to the welfare of everyone else. This is how we can fulfill our duty to be loving toward God.
I would revise this argument to say that all human beings are moral agents for God. When we act lovingly, promoting what is good for every person, we are improving God (or the divine spirit, or holiness) as we improve the world. When we act hatefully, toward ourselves or toward anyone else, we are undermining God as we undermine the world. I know that “doing the right thing” myself will not help everyone I encounter, but I believe it will at least contribute to an overall improvement in the world. So I practice acting with kindness and respect for everyone, whether I feel like it or not. And the longer I do it, the more I feel like it.
So may it be for all of us.