In this week’s Torah portion Kedoshim a verse appears in the very center of the portion that Rabbi Akiva called “Klal gadol baTorah – a great rule of the Torah.”
The verse is among the most famous in the Bible, and I believe among the most misunderstood – “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha… You shall love your fellow/neighbor as yourself….” (Leviticus 19:18)
There are at least three questions this verse raises. The first is how a human being can be commanded to feel love?
Actually, we can’t, which means that the mitzvah to “love” must be understood as involving something other than feelings.
The spiritual teacher David Steindl-Rast writes that there’s one thing that characterizes “love” in all its forms – erotic, romantic, familial, tribal, national, spiritual, religious, even love we feel for our pets – and it is found in our yearning to belong to and be connected with something greater than ourselves.
“Love,” he says “is a wholehearted [and willful] ‘yes’ to belonging” (Essential Writings, p. 73) with all the implications that attachment to, responsibility for and accountability with others bring.
Our yearning to belong opens us to greater understanding of who we really are and what our role is in the world. That yearning links us heart to heart with others, with creatures large and small, with nature, the universe, the cosmos, and God.
Jewish mystics have taught for centuries a central truth, just as scientists today have concluded, that we are physically and spiritually part of a vast Oneness. We share common origins and a common destiny with each other, with every people and nation, and because of this we’re responsible for one another and accountable for how we behave with friend, foe and stranger alike.
Too often our idea of “self” as suggested in “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” is limited to our little egos. If that verse, however, is to mean something, then we need to think about “love” differently; not as a feeling alone, but as an attitude of the heart.
V’ahavta understood this way enables us to fulfill the commandment because our response is not based in a feeling but as an act of will that we exercise when we take responsibility for others because we belong to each other as part of the great Oneness of humankind.
What does it mean then to “love” someone as we love ourselves?
Rambam taught that if it’s ever a toss-up between saving our own lives and saving another, we’re obligated to save our own lives first.
Ramban (a century later) interprets the mitzvah as meaning that what we wish for ourselves we must also wish for others whether we know them or not.
The third question is perhaps the most challenging. Does this commandment call upon us actually to “love” our enemies in some way?
No. Indeed, there are some people we cannot wish well as we wish for ourselves because their deeds have been too heinous to tolerate or forgive.
That being said, I’ll never forget a speech delivered nearly thirty-six years ago on the White House lawn by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the occasion of the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords with Egypt.
Begin told the world that day that the Jewish people considers it amongst the greatest of mitzvot to make of a “ra” ( an “evil” person –an enemy) into a “rea” (“a fellow” – a friend).
Though Egypt and Israel are hardly “friends” as we understand friendship between nations, it’s a fact that since that day, September 17, 1978, there has not been one day of war between Israel and Egypt.
There are many examples in which enemies have been transformed into “fellows” by sincere t’shuvah (penitence) and s’lichah (forgiveness) on the part of one or both parties.
Though Judaism doesn’t command us to “love” our enemies, tradition does require us to give a penitent person a chance at reconciliation.
As a people we’re only required to act ethically towards our enemies thereby leaving open the possibility of transformation should circumstances warrant it (see Exodus 23:4).
This week negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians verge on derailment, but we need to remember that once Germany was the Jewish people’s greatest enemy and today Germany is the least anti-Semitic country in Europe.
Germany and Japan were bitter foes of America seventy years ago, and Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were killing each other. Today, these former enemies have laid down their guns and established peace.
My Israeli friend, Yaron Shavit, likes to say – “B’Yisrael ye-ush lo optsia! – In Israel, despair is not an option!”
That is an important attitude to remember as we keep open our hearts that we may now or in the future fulfill the mitzvah “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha!”