Perhaps no other mitzvah is quoted as frequently as ואהבת לרעך כמוך, V’Ahavata L’Reyecha K’Mocha, Love your fellow as yourself. We proudly point at this commandment as the basis of our entire value system and a variant of it, to not inflict on someone else something you yourself detest, is said by Hillel to encapsulate the entire Torah!
In a world of rampant egotism, vanity and selfishness, you’d think that we’d easily understand what it means to love ourselves. While it might require the sacrifice of sharing that feeling for others, intellectually, at least, it seems pretty simple.
Rabbi Twerski zt”l (Malchut Shlomo, Parshat Kedoshim) gives us a little more context. He reminds us that this commandment isn’t presented in a vacuum, but rather is preceded with the commandment to not only not hate our brother, but also to gently correct him (VaYikra 19:17). The following verse (Vayikra 19:18), furthermore tells us to neither take revenge not to bear hatred in our hearts. This is immediately followed in the same verse with the commandment to love our fellows. Further, he tells us that these linked commandments aren’t “merely” mitzvot, but contain a promise. He explains that if we carefully practice these prohibitions, that when we perceive an injury from someone we take a breath and not jump immediately to hate, but rather that we calmly let that person know just how we feel about their action, we can discharge our own anger. Thus, we won’t feel an overwhelming need to get back at them with revenge, and we’ll find that our heart isn’t filled with anger and grudges. If we’re able to succeed in controlling our own behavior as described, we’ll see that rather than hating this person, we’ll actually find a love for them.
On the surface, this sounds naive. First, the Torah is talking about a real injury, either to property or honor. We’ve all learned speaking our mind doesn’t make everything “all better”. It also can seem unreasonable that we, the victim, is the one required to expend so much energy. We need to engage the other party rather than confront them. We need to separate within ourselves the actual injury and our feelings about it. We need to speak gently with them, even when we’re bursting inside with raw emotion. And then we need to actively lower our emotional temperature. Having done all this emotional work, we should, perhaps, love ourselves for just how balanced and mature and “spiritual” we’ve been. Perhaps we can feel a sense of neutrality toward him, but doesn’t it sound unreasonable to them be required to love them? After all, who is the victim and who is the villain in this situation?
But Rabbi Twerski zt”l took this another way entirely. He says that as a result of this process we’re assured that in the end we will come to love him. This is very puzzling. How can this be?
I think we need to look at the entire situation from a different point of view. Our tradition teaches us that we benefit and progress from performing both the positive and negative commandments, the mandates and the prohibitions. Ideally, we can best achieve our goals for ourselves and for the world in general if we at least visit each mitzvah. But without someone harming us, how will we ever be able to experience these particular mitzvot? How will we be able to grow if we don’t leave our comfort zone, but why would we ever, on our own, enter a situation which is painful? It’s only through the agency of this injury or insult that we have the opportunity to develop these important qualities in ourselves. When we finally see that the attack, even if it was based on malice the other person had for us, viewed from this higher point of view, we then realize that this was, indeed, an experience we needed.
We’re taught that שכר מצוה מצוה, Schar Mitzvah Mitzvah, that the reward for performing a mitzvah is that mitzvah itself. With great effort and with eyes open to beneath the surface, we realize that we would never have had to opportunity to fulfill these mitzvot otherwise. It’s possible, perhaps not easy or trivial, but possible to develop a deep love and gratitude for the person who, by whatever means, created these opportunities for us.
It’s simplistic to see everything in terms of reward and punishment–God’s love is certainly not limited to a Pavlovian template. Admittedly, some of our experience will be generated by that mechanism. But other experiences will be designed to challenge us, to present our next opportunity to grow and to climb higher. In situations like that, the other party is, in a sense, only part of that mechanism directed towards our growth, just like we’re often involved in situations only because of our contribution to someone else’s challenge! It would be easier, of course, if everything came to us with a label, but it rarely does.
There is a very strange halacha that we’re mandated to make a bracha, a blessing, on bad things that happen to us exactly as we bless good things! On the surface, this is an entirely absurd commandment. Only when we look beyond the feeling tone of the experience and see it, rather, as a gateway to our next stage, can we see the blessing in it. Likewise, it’s no challenge at all to love a fellow who only does good things to us. We don’t grow until we are forced to transcend our own anger and sense of hurt. At that point, we do find love and gratitude blossoming within our hearts.