How to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself: What Does It Really Mean? | Aleph Beta

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What It Means To Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

"Ve'ahavta l're'echa kamocha" – "Love your neighbor as yourself" – that’s an easy mitzvah, right?

Errrr, not so much. To love your neighbor as yourself… that sounds like a pretty tall order! How many of us can actually say: “Yep, I love my neighbors as much as I love myself”? And yet it’s a mitzvah in the Torah! So are we all just failing horribly at keeping the Torah?

Could be. But maybe not. What if this mitzvah doesn’t quite mean what it sounds like it means? What if there’s a nuance to it that we’re missing? 

There would only be one way to know. You see, we hear this mitzvah quoted all the time as a standalone sound bite, but in the Torah, it is a part of a conversation, a flow of logical ideas. To truly understand "Ve'ahavta l're'echa kamocha," we can't just examine it alone. We’d have to open up the Torah to Leviticus 19 and read this mitzvah in its context. When we do, perhaps we'll be able to see it in a whole new light.

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman does just that and shows that the mitzvah of "Love your neighbor as yourself" is easier to do than you might think. Not only that, but it has the power to seriously elevate your most troubled relationships.


This is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Kedoshim. This week's parsha contains one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah: ve'ahavta lere'acha kamocha, "love your neighbor as yourself."

Today, I want to look at that verse with you in context.

What Does It Mean to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?

When you take these three words not as a sound bite, but see it in the context of the entire two sentences in which they appear, how does that change its meaning? Zeh klal gadol batorah, "this is the great principle of the Torah," according to Rabbi Akiva. But what is that great principle of the Torah? What does it mean when you see the whole picture?

Here are the verses in question, Leviticus chapter 19, and let's start from verse 17. Lo-tisna et-achicha bilvavecha, "do not hate your brother in your heart." Hoche'ach tochiach et-amitecha, "reprove your fellow." You see somebody doing something wrong, tell them about it. Hoche'ach comes from the word 'to show, to point out.' Velo-tisa alav chet, "and do not carry upon yourself a sin." Lo-tikom velo-titor et-benei amecha, "do not take revenge, do not nurse a grudge against your people." Ve'ahavta lere'acha kamocha ani HASHEM, "and love your neighbor as yourself, I am God." Those are the verses, and it strikes me that if you want to understand verses like these, you have to play a little game; I call it 'take it apart and put it back together again.'

If you give a little kid a toy, he's going to take apart the toy. Now if the kid can put the toy back together again, then they've really accomplished something. They've understood it. Can we do the same thing with these verses? Can we take apart these verses into their components and then reconstruct them?

Here is the trick about reconstructing them. There are four basic ideas, maybe with some sub-categories. You can imagine it almost like a skeleton; the ideas here are the bones. But what are the ligaments? What are the connecting points between those bones? The Torah doesn't actually give us the ligaments, it just puts the ideas out there. It's up to us to figure out how do these ideas connect? And an interesting exercise is, if you could put, like, conjunction words in there, like 'and,' 'but,' 'because,' what words would you put in to make sense of how these four ideas actually connect to each other? That would be putting it back together. So let's try it out. Let's take it apart first.

Ways to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself in Leviticus

Idea #1: Lo-tisna et-achicha bilvavecha, "do not hate your fellow in your heart." Interestingly, if I were to just ask you, I said, "Does the Torah consider it okay to hate someone?" Many of us would probably say, "No! Hatred is a bad thing! You see it in the verse." Ah, but look carefully. It doesn't say "don't hate your fellow," it says "don't hate your fellow in your heart." What does "in your heart" add?

Now, let's go to idea #2: Hoche'ach tochiach et-amitecha, "reprove your fellow." If they are doing something wrong, tell them about it. Velo-tisa alav chet, "and do not bear a sin upon yourself." How does that fit with a larger idea? Lo-tikom velo-titor et-benei amecha, "don't take revenge, don't nurse a grudge." And finally, ve'ahavta lere'acha kamocha, "and love your neighbor as yourself."

So those are the ideas. How do they fit together? I think it all comes back to that question I raised just a minute ago, "Is it okay to hate somebody?" The surprising answer, when you look at the Torah, is yes, absolutely. Just don't hate them in your heart.

How to Love – not Hate – Your Neighbor as Yourself

Let me share with you here the Ramban's way of reading these verses, of linking these ideas. Things go wrong between people. Things make you annoyed, it is okay to feel hatred. What's not okay is to smile when you feel hatred. To keep it in your heart. To bury it deep inside, and you pretend that everything is fine. There is another option of course, and the Torah gives you the other option in the very next idea. What should you do instead? The connecting piece here is, instead, hoche'ach tochiach et-amitecha, "reprove your fellow," show them.Hatred likes to be secretive, to bury itself, the Ramban says. Don't give in to that impulse. Be upfront. Find a way to tell your friend about it.

Velo-tisa alav chet. The way Rashi understands this, but be careful in how you show your cards to someone. Don't do it in a way that causes you to transgress. You might think that they've sinned against you. Don't cause sin upon yourself by telling them. Don't embarrass them in public. Do it in a way that's not hurtful, that's constructive. Figure out a way that they can hear what it is that you want to tell them. And if you do that, you've shown your cards.

There is an alternative, an evil alternative. What happens if you don't do this? What happens if someone really bugs you? And instead of showing them you hate them deep in your heart, you rationalize bearing the hatred because you say, "I can handle it. I smile at them when I see them. I'm okay." You look happy, and everything looks fine. But is everything fine? Hatred always comes out. The only question is how? Look at the next idea.

Lo-tikom velo-titor et-benei amecha, "do not take revenge, do not bear a grudge." Taking revenge and bearing a grudge, as Rashi interprets them, are kind of opposites of each other. What's the classic case of taking revenge? "I asked you to lend me an ax and you didn't lend me an ax, so I'm not going to lend you my wheelbarrow when you need a wheelbarrow." Here's the inverse of that, nursing a grudge: "Sure you can borrow my ax! I'm not like some people who don't lend axes." So I'm a nice guy, right? I let you borrow my stuff with a smile, but I nurse a grudge.

The Hebrew lo-titor means "to protect, to nurture." This hatred, my relationship with you, has become animated by a secret kind of hatred, a hatred which I don't show. I even say to myself, "I can handle my hatred. I can go about life fine. Why do I have to talk to him about it? I'll lend stuff to him when he needs it," but it's with a bitterness. Whether you say it or not, your eyes say, "I'm not like some people who don't lend axes. I'm not like you."

The Torah is saying to you that hatred always comes out. Don't say to yourself, "You can handle it." It will either come out overtly in the form of revenge, or it will come out covertly in the form of a grudge that lurks behind your smile. One way or another it will come out.

The Torah's Commentary on Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

And the Torah concludes, ve'ahavta lere'acha kamocha, "love your neighbor as yourself." The Torah is giving you a path to love your neighbor as yourself.Love your neighbor as yourself doesn't come out of nowhere. Sometimes bad stuff happens with people you like. The Torah is giving you a recipe for love in the face of bad stuff.

Step 1: Lo-tisna et-achicha bilvavecha. You want to hate them? Fine! But don't hate them in your heart. You can hate, no problem, hate away! Just hoche'ach tochiach et-amitecha. You have to lay out carefully and constructively, in the best way you can, what it is that's bothering you. Think about what a check on hatred that really is. If I'm allowed to hate, but first I have to make my case to you, I have to tell you what's on my mind, what are the possibilities?

One possibility is maybe I don't really have a case. I don't know if I can make my case. Well, if I'm not confident I can make that case to you, then maybe I shouldn't hate you. Or, maybe I do make my case to you, and then maybe we reconcile. I've shown you what's on my mind. You can then take that and say, "Oh my gosh! I really think you misunderstood me." You can explain to me the misunderstanding. Or if there is no misunderstanding, and you really did something to hurt me, you can apologize.And then you have (d) the other person says, "You know, I really did mean to hurt you, and I don't feel bad about it." Okay! So then you can hate him!

So that's one set of possibilities.But whatever you do, don't bury your hatred and hate your fellow in your heart while you smile on the outside. If you do that, your hatred is doomed to come out as revenge;as a grudge. Put your cards on the table; that's the way hatred gets dissipated, that's the way you love your neighbor as yourself.

That's how you get to love, love that works through the problems and takes the misunderstandings of the little slights and all of the little things that can destroy love, and instead turns them into building blocks for a true love that's not built on a smile pasted upon resentment, but that is true affection, through and through.

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