“You should love your fellow as yourself”

Posted on November 9, 2023

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.

 וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ
You should love your fellow as yourself
Lev. 19:18


A few years back, PJ Library put out a wonderful children’s book, Do Unto Otters, based on this famous verse.

Talmud Shabbat 31a:6 helps us understand this pasuk for Jews (and really all humans) of all ages:

“There was another incident involving one non-Jew who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.’”

Practicing kindness to ourselves and to others is first and foremost, the holiest mitzvah, found at the heart of the Torah, both literally and figuratively. And it is central to Hillel’s summary of the Torah to the convert in this well-known talmudic story.

The word rei’ah can be translated as neighbor, fellow or friend, and is even a Hebrew name (my niece’s name in fact!). While the verse that makes this word so famous comes from Parashat Kedoshim in the middle of the Torah, we also learn a great deal about what it means to be kind to others, to be a good neighbor, from this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah.

Shortly after Sarah’s death at the beginning of Chayei Sarah, Avraham needed to
make burial arrangements for his beloved wife: Then Avraham rose from beside
his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying: “I am a ger v’toshav (resident alien) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” (Gen. 23:4)
Avraham mentioned his status as ger v’toshav, because a resident alien was unable
to purchase real estate. 

Midrashic commentary continues: Avraham is uncertain whether his neighbors accept him as a fellow resident or tolerate him as an alien in their midst. The Hittite’s answer surprises him: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (Gen. 23:5-6) Avraham is surprised because the Hittites have gone beyond acceptance and toleration. They truly admire him for the quality of his faith: “you are the elect of God among us.”

This opening section of Chayei Sarah is a paragon for how to respect our
neighbors, regardless of our differences. 

Sarah’s burial plot was the first parcel of real estate acquired by Avraham in the promised land, Cana’an, Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael. And we sadly know that the kindness of the Hittites to Avraham is only a dream right now; to live in peace with our neighbors has been our never ending challenge and goal. To be able to respect one another’s differences is to value all of humanity, to love our fellows as ourselves.

We, Jews, are living in surreal times, where our home is being threatened. We should not live in horror. We should not live in fear. 

I pray for an end to this war, for a time when we can live in peace with our neighbors, for a time when the Hittite’s attitude toward Avraham prevails, for a time when the Prophet Isaiah’s vision will be fulfilled: “A nation shall not raise a sword against a nation, and they shall not learn any more war.”

Shalom l’Yisrael