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Parshat Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim Dvar Torah By Rabbi Mendy Eisenberg

Once again we are blessed with two parshiot this week, Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. I would like to focus on a particular pasuk that Rabbi Akiva says is one of the fundamental laws of the Torah.

In Vayikra 19:18, the pasuk instructs us to love others as one loves themselves, but that is only the third law given in that particular pasuk. The pasuk read in its entirety is as follows: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against one of your people; and you shall love your fellow as yourself. I am Hashem.” Rashi famously gives anecdotal examples to differentiate between the ban on wanting vengeance and bearing a grudge—the former about taking action and the latter about harboring feelings—but they both relate to paying someone back for the misdeed that they have shown you. My simple question is: What do those two laws that are obviously connected have to do with the third law of loving your fellow like yourself? Now, before you go ahead and answer that one who loves his/her fellow like his/herself won’t be vengeful, I would challenge you to find a pasuk in Kedoshim that discusses a law between man and his fellow that would not fit perfectly with the law of loving others like themselves. In fact, the pasuk right before 19:17 could fit perfectly: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall love your fellow as yourself.” This seems like a perfectly suitable juxtaposition. So I’m left wondering what is the connection between the prohibition of vengeance and the commandment to love your fellow?

I think the answer can be found by analyzing the nature of the commandment to love your neighbor. Hashem says to love your neighbor like yourself. Hashem is very helpful here by giving a measurement by which one should love, whereas in other places, it’s left a little bit more vague: “וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֶלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל־לבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ”—“And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your possessions.” Here, the measurement is as much as you love yourself. People often take that to mean to do for others as you would want done for you. I have always found that to be troubling because human beings have different interests; what my friend loves may be abhorrent to me. If I like spicy food, should I give spicy poppers to my friend who cries if the food has any flavor? Obviously, no one thinks that this is what Hashem has in mind. If so, what does Hashem mean with this supposedly clearer metric of “like yourself”? I believe that Hashem is not giving us instructions on what to do specifically, but to think of others when we interact with them for good (and for bad, for that matter). Before you do something for that person, think: If I were in that situation, what would I want done for me? If someone were to be giving me food, and I felt the way he/she does about spicy food, how would I feel if someone then gave me spicy food? How would I want someone to do something for me? This mitzvah is not about specific actions; rather, it is about empathy. With this new understanding, I think we can see a connection to this commandment and the prohibition of vengeance.

Contrary to what one might think, vengeance is not always a reaction to something that someone did to you. Vengeance is often a reaction to something that someone else did that affected you. The difference is very fine but is highlighted through viewing the main character of your narrative as your fellow instead of it being you. “My neighbor has a perfectly good lawn mower, and yet, did not let me borrow it the other day. I was having company, and my lawn was a wreck! How could he? And now he wants to use my laptop? Yeah, right!” This is a story where only one person’s perspective is being viewed. But now, think of others like yourself and your neighbor is the main character: “Oh man…I would totally have lent him my lawn mower, but my other friend is borrowing it from me already, and he didn’t want me to let anyone know he was mowing the lawn so he can surprise his wife. I wish I could lend it to this friend, too.” Taking revenge is only something that can even be slightly entertained in thought because person A did something to person B. If person A did something neutral, but person B happened to be affected by it, revenge doesn’t make any sense.

Not only is the commandment to love others more geared towards thinking with empathy towards others, Hashem also imbues an assumption that one cares about themselves. That means that inherently to properly loving others, one must first love him/herself; and one who does not love him/herself cannot know the proper metric to use in order to love others. I give us all a bracha that we should perfectly fulfill the mitzvah of loving others as ourselves and all that that implies.

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