My grandfather was a crackpot. He threw away money on get-rich-quick schemes; he dropped in on neighborhood housewives with irises from his garden and then stayed all afternoon, oblivious to hints, until they called my grandmother in desperation. For decades my grandparents’ marriage limped along without sex or affection, but Grandma kept bailing out Grandpa, feeding him, doing his laundry.
“If he makes so much trouble for you, why don’t you divorce him?” my mother asked.
Grandma sighed. “Who else would take care of him?”
Love your neighbor like yourself. Love the stranger like yourself. Both of these divine commands appear in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Like the English verb “love”, the Hebrew verb ahav (אָהַב) in both of these commands can refer to either a feeling of deep affection for another person, or an unselfish course of action for the benefit of another. My grandmother only “loved” my grandfather according to the second definition.
Which kind of love is commanded in this week’s Torah portion?
Love your neighbor
You must not be hostile toward your kinsman in levavekha; you must definitely reprimand your comrade, and you must not carry guilt on account of him. You must not take revenge, and you must not hold a grudge against [any of] your own people. And you must love reiakha like yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
levavekha (לְבָוֶךָ) = your “heart”, i.e. your seat of consciousness including thinking as well as feeling.
reiakha (רֵעֲךָ) = your friend, your fellow, your neighbor.
The Torah uses words for “your kinsman/family member”, “your comrade/colleague”, “your people”, and “your neighbor/fellow” to include everyone with whom you have some personal relationship, from a close relative to an acquaintance in your social or ethnic group.
It is human nature to have hostile feelings toward some of these individuals, particularly when they do something that wrongs us, or something that we disapprove of. But in Biblical Hebrew, the heart is the seat not only of feelings, but also of thoughts and conscious decisions. This injunction commands us to recognize our hostile feelings, think about the situation, and take the right actions anyway.
The right actions include speaking up and telling people when you notice they are doing wrong. (You must definitely reprimand your comrade.)
Classic commentary adds that you must tell them when you believe they have insulted or harmed you. This gives them the opportunity to either apologize or explain themselves. Then you must either accept their apologies or consider their extenuating circumstances and move on. Instead of getting back at them or holding a grudge, you must treat them with courtesy.1
Moreover, you must love them like yourself. “Love” in this case cannot mean a feeling of deep affection. For one thing, although we can retrain our feelings, it takes a lot of practice over a long period of time; meanwhile, we need to control our behavior. For another, some people do not love themselves; but nevertheless they should behave ethically toward other people.2
Therefore “you must love reiakha like yourself” is a variation of the Golden Rule; you must promote the welfare of your fellow equally with your own.3
According to Ramban, we should conquer our natural desire for superiority and do what we can to bring every good thing that we desire to our fellow-beings as well—just as Jonathan, the son of King Saul, did everything he could for David’s welfare and did not mind that David became king instead of himself.4
The only exception that classic commentary cites is Rabbi Akiva’s answer to a Talmudic question: When two men in a desert have only enough water for one to survive long enough to reach a settlement, should they share the water and both die? Rabbi Akiva replied: “your life takes precedence over the life of the other”.5
Love the stranger
Later in this week’s Torah portion, God commands the Israelites to treat immigrants or resident aliens the same way as members of their own groups.
And if a resident alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The one who resides with you must be like a native-born citizen among you. And you must love him like yourself, because you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt. I am God, your god. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
This passage begins by prescribing a course of action: do not oppress the resident alien, treat him the same way you treat people in your own group. Elsewhere the book of Leviticus specifies that these resident aliens are subject to the same laws (including many religious laws) as natives.6
But it ends by an appeal to love as a feeling rather than a course of action; the reason for treating aliens fairly is that you can empathize with them, since your own ancestors once lived in a foreign country.
This injunction applies only to immigrants or to people of other nationalities who are living in your country for a while. Nowhere does the Torah require a loving course of action toward foreigners in other countries. Nor does it tell the Israelites to empathize with them. A loving approach toward foreigners in other countries would conflict with the demands of war. The Torah approves of initiating wars, and even of committing genocide.7
Many people today believe we should act for the benefit of all human beings on earth. But how far should your personal circle of responsibility extend? If you know a hundred people, should you strive to help all of them get the good things in life, or only those in the most need, or only those who ask you, or only those closest to you, or only those who have no one else? Do you share your resources, including time, to the point where you yourself no longer have enough?
Most people want to take care of themselves and the people for whom they feel deep affection. Widening your circle of loving actions is not so easy. For example, it can be hard to take care of a family member who is all trouble and no reward, as my grandmother found out.
“You must love your fellow like yourself” may be the greatest ethical command in the bible. But it may also be the most difficult.
- Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) and Or HaChayim (18th-century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar) on Leviticus 19:17-18.
- Some classic commentaries, including Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 113b; Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir); and Or HaChayim also balk at the idea of feeling affection toward people who do evil deeds.
- However, John H. Collins argued that the preceding verses, Leviticus 19:13-16, indicate that “love” in this case means “Love, then, is not an emotion here, but refers to treating one’s neighbor justly—the manner you might treat someone whom you do love.” (https://www.thetorah.com/article/love-your-neighbor-how-it-became-the-golden-rule)
- See https://www.sefaria.org/Ramban_on_Leviticus.19.19?lang=bi.
- Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 62a, which cites Akiva’s response to Leviticus 25:36: And your kinsman shall live with you.
- Examples include Leviticus 16:2, 17:8, 17:12, 20:2, 24:16, and 24:21-22. Extra consideration is required for the resident alien who gleans along with the poor, the fatherless, and the widow in Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22.
- See my post Eikev & Judges: Love or Kill the Stranger?