Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself | Aleph Beta

Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself

Do I Have to Get Along with Everyone?

Beth Lesch


"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? 

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.


Hi. I'm Beth Lesch.

Let me ask you a question:

Is there anybody that you hate

Maybe you’re thinking: “Why yes! Yes, I do! How much time you got?”

Or maybe you’re thinking: “I don’t know… “hate” is a really strong word. Do I really hate anyone?” Fine, so don’t get too hung up on the word; what I’m asking is: is there anyone in your life that you’re feeling really negatively about right now? 

Think about work. Maybe it’s a colleague who cuts corners to get ahead, and he just keeps on getting rewarded and it gets under your skin. Maybe it’s a “friend” who keeps flaking on you, canceling at the last minute, and you just feel like he’s not giving to the friendship the way that he used to, the way you are. Or someone in your family: your sister or brother is so condescending everytime you talk, Or the worst: someone does something to your kid. My mom still remembers that time that my 2nd grade teacher called me a moron. It’s been over twenty years and her blood is still boiling.

Can you think of someone like that? Can you picture him or her in your mind? We’ve all been there, right? 

Now - what if I told you that that feeling you have is not allowed? It’s assur! Verboten! Leviticus 19:

לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ

Don’t hate your brother in your heart

Well that’s great, you’re probably thinking. We’ll just file that under “Easier said than done,” right under “Love your neighbor as yourself,” shall we? Can anyone say: Wishful thinking? Unfunded mandate? I mean, I have good reason to not like this person, so what, exactly, does God expect me to do? Just forget all about what he or she did to me? Just… stop hating - like that [snap]? God, I’m all for keeping your mitzvos — really, I am… Shabbos - love it! Lo tirzach, don’t murder - big fan!  — but how am I supposed to do this one? Can’t I just daven an extra shemonah esrei and call it a day?

Here’s the surprising answer. Yes, the Torah tells us not to hate our brother in our heart - but there’s more to this verse than meets the eye. To see it, you have to read this verse in the context of the entire two sentences in which it appears. When you do that, a much more nuanced picture will emerge. A picture that doesn’t feel like: “Do you really expect me to do that?”

Here, I’m going to hand it over to Rabbi Fohrman to explain...

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, for 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.

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.

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? 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 with 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. 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.

So now look at the possibilities. If I say to you, "Yes, you can hate, but before you hate, you have to put your cards on the table constructively," look at the various possibilities: Either (a) I say to myself, "You know what, I don't really think I can make the case." Or (b) I do make the case and you say, "You know, I really think you misunderstood me" and you can explain it. Or (c) maybe the other person says, "You know what, I'm really sorry. Thanks for telling me." 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 or 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 problem 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.

Now, just before you go, I want to share with you my reaction to this video — in the hopes that it might ring a chord for you too. 

This video is hard for me - because I’m not a big fan of conflict. That’s my personality: I don’t like to get in people’s faces. I would just rather keep my head down and avoid a scene. Are there people who rub me the wrong way? Umm, yes. I’m human. But here’s what I tend to do about it: nothing. No talking back, no dramatic confrontations. I smile and pretend that everything is OK.

But - there have been those occasional times when I have forced myself — or been forced — to sit down and talk it out with someone — and even though it’s massively uncomfortable at first, it’s usually a really productive and cathartic experience in the end. This actually happened with one of my colleagues here at Aleph Beta. I know, I’m totally breaking the fourth wall here, it’s weird… but when we’re not making super cool animated Torah videos, but we also do ordinary workplace things, like chitchat by the water cooler and submit receipts for reimbursement. Anyway, I had been working on a bunch of video scripts, and it had been a long time since I’d gotten any positive feedback from my boss, and I was feeling insecure and a little resentful. It’s not that I hated him, far from it, but the relationship was feeling tense to me, a little on edge, a little distant. A big part of me was screaming, “Keep smiling! Do nothing!”, but then I heard this other voice in my head, this calm but insistent voice that said: “If you care about this relationship, then maybe you ought to, you know, talk about it.” So… I started typing! And then the voice got really annoying and said: “When I said ‘talk,’ I meant ‘talk,’ not text,’ you blasted millennial.” So I started talking. “It feels like I only hear from you when I’ve done something wrong, which is pretty demoralizing. Can you offer some positive feedback along with the bad?” It was scary at first. I offered critiques. I got vulnerable. Things got worse before they got better. But they did get better… we navigated through it and arrived at a stronger place. I’m really proud of that. 

That all being said: this was a couple of months ago, and I haven’t initiated any conversations like that since. But in putting this video together, I’m realizing that it’s probably time that I take another crack at this — and I want to invite you to join me, if you feel up to the challenge. Think about a relationship in your life that could use a little bit of work. If you’re feeling ambitious, go for that person who inspires feelings of hate, or near-hate: that abusive boss or the corner-cutting colleague or the flaky friend or the condescending sibling or whoever. But you can also start small. Share this video with that person, and tell them that you’ve been doing some thinking about your relationship; are they up for a talk?

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