The Bershider Rebbe said: Do you want people to love you? Love them first.
This is undoubtedly one of the messages of this week’s double Torah portion, Achare-Kedoshim, a portion considered by many to be equal to the Ten Commandments. Why? It contains the chapter often referred to as the Holiness Code. Essentially it is a blueprint for a holy life, concluding with the famous verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Wait a minute … Love them first? Or love yourself first?
The answer is … both. If you want people to love you, love them. But don’t forget to love yourself, too.
A story told about Rabbi Hillel, a teacher of the first century B.C.E., offers one of the earliest explanations of this Torah concept. Once a non-Jew challenged him with the promise; “I will convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel’s response was immediate. “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” (Mishna Shabbat 31)
Why did Hillel choose to phrase the Torah’s positive commandment — You shall love your neighbor as yourself — in a negative way? One way to understand Hillel’s statement is to conclude that the negative formulation is easier for us to understand. We can identify what hurts and harms us. We can say what brings us pain. We can ask: If my neighbor did to me what I am thinking of saying or doing to him, would it hurt or harm me? If the answer is yes, we know that loving your neighbor as yourself means to avoid those destructive behaviors.
But can we really use our own feelings, attitudes, likes and dislikes as basis for deciding how to treat each other? In reality, each of us has our own preferences, tastes and perceptions of what brings happiness and what brings pain. We cannot assume that what makes us rejoice causes our neighbor to rejoice as well; similarly, what we consider to be insulting may not be so for those around us. As a result, the commentators remind us to treat others with respect and love, not because we are commanded to do so, nor because we understand their feelings, tastes or reactions to be like our own. We are to respect the rights, dignity, and feelings of others because, like us, they were created b’tzelem
Elohim, in God’s image. (Genesis Rabbah 24) In other words, love your neighbor – not because they are like you, but because they are who they are.
Love your neighbor as yourself … our tradition challenges us to love ourselves and to transform that self-love into a caring and loving attitude toward others. May we live up to that challenge: Treat not only ourselves with the utmost respect and admiration but our neighbors, friends, families and anyone else we might encounter as well.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)