on Friday, 16 April 2010. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons
I was speaking with a friend the other day—a conversation of hypothetical “what-ifs.” I presented her with the scenario: what if a distant acquaintance who was unable to conceive, asked you to carry a child for her. What would you do? My friend and I discussed all of the factors in answering this question: how close we were to this person, if we already had our own children, how old we were when we’re asked, etc. Then I asked my friend, what if your sister asked you to carry a child for her? And my friend swiftly replied, “of course I would.”
The focus of our conversation was our sense of obligation to others. Generosity is much easier to offer to ourselves or those close to us, but offering it to strangers is another story.
Parshat Kedoshim commands, V’ahavtah l’reiecha k’mocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”1 What does this mitzvah mean? Is it possible to love someone outside of our own family with the same commitment we have for ourselves?
One of the earliest explanations of this commandment comes from Rabbi Hillel during the first century BCE. Hillel is known for his claim that the entire Torah could be captured in one sentence: what is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah.2 He transposes the positive commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” into a negative commandment because it is easier for us as humans to understand. We can imagine how bad it would feel to be hurt or harmed. // But another one of Hillel’s colleagues argued that we can’t use our own feelings as a basis for deciding how to treat others. Instead we must base our actions on the teaching that God created humans in the image of God.3 We treat others with love and respect not because we are commanded or because we think their feelings are like ours, but because like us, they were created in God’s image.4
Maimonides, a medieval philosopher, acknowledges that it’s not always possible to feel an equal quantity of concern for the welfare of others. The Torah, he argues, does not command the extent of our love, but rather the genuine quality of it.5
While reading these commentaries, I am struck by the difficulty of our command, V’ahavtah l’reiecha k’mocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” // Many people often ask, “Why be Jewish? Isn’t it enough just to be a good, moral person?” For me, V’ahavtah l’reiecha k’mocha exemplifies this nuance. Loving your neighbor as yourself is so much more than simply being a good, moral person. It implies a tremendous generosity of spirit. It means stepping outside of our own sphere of needs and seeing another’s yearnings and desires as equally important.
Psychologist Erich Fromm, in his classic work, The Art of Loving, argues that love of oneself and love for others are mutually connected. “Love is an activity...it is primarily giving, not receiving.” In the act of giving, we do not lose or sacrifice that which is precious to us. Instead, giving allows us to experience our power, our vitality. Fromm argues that the experience of heightened vitality and potency fills us with joy. Giving is more joyous than receiving...because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.6
All of us have felt the exuberance that comes from giving fully, loving fully. And that is what I believe V’ahavtah l’reiecha k’mocha seeks to enforce. Would I carry a child and give it to a distant acquaintance? I hope that if I am blessed to be able to offer such a loving gift, I could. But for me, Maimonides hits upon the heart of this commandment: the Torah does not command the extent of our love, but rather the genuine quality of it.7 Are we offering compassion with sincerity? Are we truly giving with a fullness of heart?
On this Shabbat, I pray that we each experience the joy and exhilaration that comes from giving such love, and may our gift enable us to experience the divine presence which emanates from such generosity.
Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall
1 Leviticus 19:18.
2 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
3 Genesis 5:1.
4 Genesis Rabbah 24.
5 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Evel 14:1.