Parashat Kedoshim / פרשת קדשים
Torah Portion: Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
“Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18)
This week’s parashah opens with “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What follows is essentially a handbook on how to be holy. In fact, this parashah, which contains 51 mitzvot (commandments) by a traditional counting, enumerates some of the most important mitzvot in the entire Torah. It is clear that the way become holy is by following as many of the mitzvot as possible. By doing so, we are more likely to become the most ethical, loving people we can be and also distinguish ourselves from a society whose values and norms are sometimes questionable, sometimes antithetical to the whole idea of holiness.
At the core of what it means to be holy is the teaching “love your fellow as yourself.” Hillel, paraphrasing this verse as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” says to an eager student for conversion to Judaism: “This is the entire Torah. All else is commentary!” Rabbi Akiva, a sage who lived from about 40 to 137 CE, considers loving your fellow as yourself a central principle of all of Torah. The verdict is in: loving our fellows as ourselves is key to our mission of becoming a holy people.
Exactly what the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” means, however, is open for interpretation. One interpretation comes from Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides or Ramban. This great thinker, who lived from 1195 CE to about 1270 CE and lived in Spain and Israel, offers this commentary:
One’s love for others should be equivalent to one’s love for oneself. For sometimes a person might love another in some respects but not all, treating him well (for example) with regard to money matters but not to intellectual ones. If he loved him completely, he would want him to have wealth and property, honor, knowledge and wisdom — but it is human nature that he will always want more of them for himself. The text commands that one should not nurture these petty jealousies, but love one’s fellow with the same unlimited love that one has for oneself.
Nahmanides points to the love of Jonathan, who loved David “as himself” (I Samuel 20:17). Jonathan was the son of Saul, the first king of Israel. Though Jonathan would have been the logical successor to Saul, Jonathan knew that the throne would pass to David. Rather than sabotage David’s ascent to the kingship and grab it for himself, Jonathan “eliminated all jealousy from his heart” and supported David. In other words, Jonathan’s desire for David to become king was as strong as his own desire to become king. Thus, for Nahmanides, at least, Jonathan’s love for David exemplifies the Torah’s ideal.
Among the many ways we could understand “loving our fellows,” Nahmanide’s prescription is certainly among the most difficult to achieve. It’s much easier to treat someone nicely or to not steal from them than it is to extend to them the same heartfelt wishes that you harbor for yourself without falling down the black hole of jealousy. Everyday we interact with people who have things that we wish we had: money, a nice home, a loving family, a high i.q., a winning personality, and on and on. Sometimes they lack what we are fortunate to possess. In any case, how often do we find ourselves saying to ourselves, “I wish I had that more than him or her!” or the opposite “Thank God, I don’t have that.”? The problem is that viewing through the filter of self-interest or judgment is an obstacle to the kind of love that Nahmanides is talking about.
Imagine if we suspended judgment and envy in all our relationships. Not only would we extend to others the kindness we associate with “love,” but we would also work with those against whom we harbor ill feelings to achieve outcomes that allow for the other to feel truly fulfilled. In this scenario, the other would do the same for us. This kind of love may exist in the world, but only in scattered and remote locations. True altruism rarely makes the evening news, but what a world it would be if altruism did trump self-interest in international affairs, business, and personal relationships!
Nahmanides lays down the gauntlet, challenging us to put our egos aside and offer the fullness of our beings to our family, friends and strangers in our midst. In other word, we need to get over ourselves. If we can meet this challenge, we will know what it means to love, and we will be on our way to becoming holy.
P.S. Take another look at the title of this essay. How would you punctuate it and why? Share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org!