How Do We Get to Love?

But which is the stone that supports the bridge? - Kublai Khan

A famous Talmudic episode tells of a prospective convert coming to both Shammai and Hillel, willing to convert if he could be taught the “whole of Judaism” while standing on one foot. Shammai sent him away in anger but Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  The rest is commentary.  Now, go and master it.”

What is hateful, do not do.  Sage advice.  But when weighed against the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” we are left with a quandary.  How do we get from “not doing what is hateful…” to “loving”?

Perhaps more to the point, there are people who would suggest that getting to “loving your neighbor” from “not doing what is hateful…” is a false journey; that they are essentially the same thing.

I think such people are fundamentally wrong.

Several years ago, I was studying a passage in the Talmud, “Our Rabbis taught: Those who are insulted ne’elavin but do not insult, hear themselves reviled shomeim cherpasan without responding, act through love and rejoice in suffering, regarding them the verse states: ‘But they who love Him as the sun goes forth in its might’ Judges 5:31”

As I stared at the words of the passage, I felt myself transported to another time and place.  The words before me, with their powerful and profound message, recalled my grandfather’s comment on this passage.  My grandfather, Rabbi Bezalel Zev Shafran, authored the renowned Shelot U’tshuvot R’baz.  It is a Sefer my father often counseled me and my siblings to study, telling us “teayenu ba’sefer shel saba”, “…look into Saba’s sefer”.

As I read the words I filled with emotion as my thoughts returned to that young boy I’d been, reading my Saba’s sefer, once again perusing this wonderful passage that had taught me as a young boy a lesson for life; a lesson of survival in a cruel world.

In commenting on this passage, my grandfather notes, “Why the double language?  Why, “those who are insulted but do not insult” only to repeat (in form and idea) “hear themselves reviled without responding”.  Aren’t these speaking to the very same people and lesson, they who are insulted but do not respond in kind?

To address the question, he explained that there are times when one is insulted, demeaned and humiliated, and yet remains silent, without crying out to the one who insulted him.  This silence, my grandfather notes, does not necessarily suggest that he is forgiving or generous of spirit.  It could very well be the insult hurts him so deeply that he is stunned, left to seethe, to seep and to stew in his anger and silence.

There are other times when one who is insulted knows only too well how evil the one piling on the insult is, he knows just how despicable the insult is and he feels he simply must respond… and yet, he holds his tongue.  He accepts the abuse heaped upon him with silence and grace.  This reaction is a sign that the insulted one is of noble character, that he is high up on the ladder of hishtalmut (wholesomeness).

Thus, when we are first taught about those who “are insulted but do not insult (ha’neelavin ve’einan olvin) we cannot be certain that their non-response comes from a noble place or from a defeated place.  However, those who “hear themselves reviled” (shomeim cherpasam) hear all the abuse heaped upon them. They know how to respond.  Indeed, they can give back in kind to those who heaped cherpa upon them.  Yet, they do not.  They einam meishivin – they do not respond.  Their non-response, rather than being a sign of weakness is a sign of strength; it is the ultimate indicator of their character.  They are the ones who “act through love and rejoice in suffering”!

It is in praise of those possessing such fine character that the passage goes on, “…they who love Him as the sun goes forth in its might.”  Just as the sun shines brightest, the one who is insulted and who remains silent will ultimately be undiminished by his silence; ultimately, he will emerge better, and stronger.  It will be his abusers who will be humbled, just as the moon was diminished and humbled by her unwarranted complaint.

So, it is that we praise the one who withstands insults not with silent scorn but with silent grace, with forbearance, with patience and humility.  Such a one is as those who are [ha’shtika b’shaat meiriva siman al shoresh tov], silent when confronted and challenged, [which is] an indication of good roots.

To bear the “sticks and stones” of the world with grace is certainly a powerful strength but what does it have to do with love?

In Kedoshim, we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  No easy task!  After all, how can we be expected to love and respect someone who has done us harm; or someone who looks and acts differently than we do; or is someone for whom we bear a grudge?

Wouldn’t it be better to maintain the walls – physical, spiritual and psychological – that separate me from my neighbor?

God expects us to “love our neighbor”.  Therefore, the question is not “whether?” but “how?” – how do we get from not doing something hateful to another to loving him?  How do we go from seething in silence from the myriad hurts and humiliations we experience to a silence of strength and grace?

We begin with the admonition “not to hate your brother in your heart”.  The first, small step in building a bridge to our neighbor and the state of grace God wants of us is with a double negative – to not do something negative, to not hate.

It makes sense then to assume that the laws hocheach tochiach et amitecha – to admonish your neighbor – and lo tisa alav chet – not to bear sin because of him – and lo tikom velo titor et bnai amecha – not to take revenge nor bear a grudge must also be related to that initial statement not to hate and the ultimate mitzvah to love.

In plotting out these steps, the Torah is providing us with a map, a pathway that allows us to acknowledge and address legitimate and recurring natural human events and feelings while still arriving at the state God wants and intends for us.

We hurt, insult and embarrass our fellow, giving him ample reason to hate us.  The conventional man, the “good” man, does not react to hurt and insult with vengeance.  Instead, he suffers in silence.  Commendable, no?  Not if we recall my grandfather’s commentary.  Suffering in silence is to have hurt and anger eat at him; darkening his soul.  It is for this reason that the Torah instructs that we are not to “hate your brother in your heart.”

Hate is never sanctioned by the Torah.  For those situations or actions that could result in hatred, the proper Torah response is hocheach tochiach et amitecha – admonish your neighbor.  Acknowledge the behavior or act, and your own feelings, so that hatred cannot and does not define you.

Hocheach suggests not simply admonition but also open, honest communication.  Open, honest, and loving communication – hocheach – is not merely reassuring but also instructive; not just “ideal” but also practical.  The ability to criticize out of love rather than out of anger and hatred averts the future guilt of “carrying sin.”

The way to “not hate” then is not found in a series of “double negatives” – not to take revenge, not to hate, not to bear the sin – not in the simple “positive” of the need to admonish.  The goal is a more lofty and exalted one.  To love.

Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

As much as we are driven by our animal, base instincts we are also called by the grace of our Creator.  Yes, we must overcome our instinct to hate, to respond in kind.  But we are also reflection of a brighter light.

Hillel’s response to the potential convert (“that which is hateful…”) suggests that the Torah commandment is fraught with emotional and practical difficulties.  After all, he restates the Torah command but in the negative.  He knows man’s tendency is to care more about himself than others – adam karov le’atzmo.  That is the rabbinic, halachic position.  “Your life takes precedence over your fellow man’s.”  It must be thus.  For how can we truly love another if we do not love ourselves first?  And yet, the Torah obligates us to love our fellow man as ourselves.

Seems impossible.  Yet it cannot be impossible.  For the Torah would not instruct us to do something beyond our capabilities.

Ramban suggests that the phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself…”, is not meant literally, “…since man cannot be expected to love his neighbor as his own soul.  Rabbi Akiva himself ruled the contrary, that ‘your life takes precedence over your fellow man’s.’”

He suggests – based on the letter lamed in the word lereacha – that the phrase means love for your neighbor; that the Torah is teaching that “we should wish our neighbor to enjoy the same that we wish for ourselves.”

Ibn Ezra likewise explains that the Torah intends one to like what is good for one’s friend the way one likes it for one’s self.  That was likely Onkelos’ view when he translated, “love your neighbor as yourself…” as, “and you shall have mercy on your friends as you have mercy on yourself.”

Rambam codified the mitzvah of loving your neighbor in precise halachic terms, setting boundaries which are both “realistic” and “achievable”:

It is incumbent on everyone to love every Israelite as one’s self, since it is said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Thus, one ought to speak in praise of one’s neighbor and be careful of one’s neighbor’s property as one is careful of one’s property, and solicitous about one’s honor.

If one lives by Rambam’s parameters then one would live an ethical life – he would not steal, damage, insult, or demean fellow human beings.  In other words, he would not do those things which he would not want done to him.

The question is, whether the sum of what one does not to adds up to what one is commanded to do.  “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not the same thing as “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”  To do the positive is not the same thing as to not do the negative.

The Torah commands that we love.  The practical application of the mitzvah (ma’aseh hamitzvah) may very well be achieved through not harming, injuring, etc.  However, not doing the negative is supposed to be the consequence of fulfilling the mitzvah, not the result of it.

To love is not just a benefit to the one I am to show love to, but to me as well.

So, is it humanly possible to love one’s re’ah as much as one’s self?  The Ba’al haTurim and Ibn Ezra suggest that it is if we interpret re’ah to refer to one’s wife, to whom it is possible, nay, necessary to love kamocha.

To love as oneself then is to breach the great divide, to become one.

It is not a bridge at all.  It is to remain at the place we are commanded to be.  To love our neighbor is to love ourselves.