Kedoshim 21 Love Your Neighbor
This week's Torah reading is called Kedoshim, holy things, from the opening charge: "You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, as holy." We then read a series of laws designed to make us a holy people.
The laws in kedoshim are inspirational. They are still as relevant to day as they were 3000 years age when they were first formulated. I'd like to focus for a moment on perhaps the most famous of the laws: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself, for I am Adonai."
What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? I'd like to explore 3 different aspects of this rule. The rabbis focus on the word in Hebrew which means “as yourself.” It would have been enough to say, “Love your neighbor.” What does it add to say “Love your neighbor as yourelf?” First,if we are told to love someone else as much as we love ourselves, there is a supposition that we love ourselves. This wording suggests that in order to attain any level of spirituality, we must have a foundation of self-esteem and self-confidence. As a minority living in tension with the majority community for generations, we Jews have to take special care not to internalize the anti-Semitic stereotypes that float around us in the air we breathe. In popular culture, Jewish women are maligned as materialistic, narcissistic JAPs while Jewish men are often portrayed as clueless nerds, the comic relief. We have to challenge these images and monitor our own feelings, to ensure that we don't buy into them. We need to conscientiously look deep within ourselves to stay in touch with our self-worth as individuals and as a people. To truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we have to begin with self-acceptance.
Second, The rabbis were astute observers of human psychology. They noticed that when we make a mistake, we immediately try to rationalize it away. 'I should have done more but I was too tired.' ' I want to help, but in the excitement of the moment, I just forgot.' ' I meant to make that shiva minyan, but the week just got too busy'. On the other hand, if someone makes an error that impacts us, we are quick to feel hurt or angry. We give ourselves a latitude for mistakes that we usually don't grant to others. So to love your neighbor as yourself, the rabbis suggest, is to extend that same understanding lattitude. Our challenge is to assume that the other meant well and couldn't deliver for whatever reason. In American culture there is the saying don't get mad, get even. In Judaism we might say, 'don't get mad, get compassion.' To love your neighbor as yourself is to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Finally, the rabbis understand 'kamocha', as yourself, as relating to our feelings about our social status in the world. They argue that it is easier for people to feel a sense of sympathy to those who aren't as well off as we are. We all like to support causes that help the poor, the hungry, the homeless. On the other hand, we often admire, or at least have a grudging respect, for those who we perceive to be on a higher status than we are. That's why, for example, advertisers regularly use celebrities to promote their products: we are more likely to buy a product that country music star Dolly Parton endorses because we respect her opinion. So, we easily have compassion for those lower, and respect for those higher. The difficult cases, our rabbis tell us, is when a person is “kamocha” as ourselves, a person that we perceive to be our social equal. A person who is our equal is perhaps a competitor, or perhaps someone whom we say to ourself: I'm making it thru life OK, why can't they?” The Torah says we should love our neighbors, even if they are “kamocha” our social equals.