Who is our neighbor?

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This week’s Torah portion is Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1–20:27.

This week’s Torah reading contains what Rabbi Akiva called the greatest principle of the Torah — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Referring to this, Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary — go and learn it.”


It’s a tall order. Nachmanides asked whether the Torah can really mean it literally. What does it mean?

Maimonides wrote that it means that one should say nice things about others and show concern for their interests, just as one is concerned with one’s own money and one’s own honor. Sforno wrote that we should act toward our neighbors in the same way that we would want them to act toward us if we were in their situation.

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HaKsav V’HaKabbalah offered nine suggestions: (1) Try to make your affection for others real, not just feigned. (2) Treat others with respect. (3) Seek the best for others. (4) Try to share in others’ pain. (5) Greet others with friendliness. (6) Give others the benefit of the doubt. (7) Try to help others physically, even in little things. (8) Be open to small or moderate loans or gifts. (9) Don’t think you’re better than others.

Rashbam asked: Just who is our neighbor? Rashbam argued that it must be only those who are neighborly to us. But Nehama Leibowitz answered that can’t be right, because the Torah uses the same word “neighbor” when God told the Israelites to borrow things from their Egyptian neighbors. The term has to be pretty broad if it applied to the Egyptians when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.


This week’s Torah reading also tells us: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” So the Torah seems to be telling us that we need to try to love resident aliens, too.

Shadal taught that this means that we should act toward others as we would want others to act toward us if we were foreigners in their country.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in thirty-seven places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves. The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves.”

The midrash says that when Rabbi Akiva argued that “love your neighbor” is the greatest principle of the Torah, Ben Azzai disagreed. Ben Azzai said that the greatest principle of the Torah is: “This is the record of the human line from the day God created human beings, making them in the likeness of God.” For one should not be able to argue, “Since I have been scorned, I should be able to scorn my neighbor as well.”

Rabbi Tanchumah explained, if you act that way, realize who it is that you are willing to scorn — one in the likeness of God.

The midrash teaches us that Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai were saying the same thing: We need to try to love others — even foreigners — because God made them as much as us.

Questions for discussion
What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?

Who is our neighbor?

How can we act to carry out this commandment?

Bill Dauster, a Senate, White House and campaign staffer from 1986 to 2017, has written Wikipedia articles on the 54 Torah portions.

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Bill. This is compelling, clear, and profound. It needs to be widely read!

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