By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
Western civilization has adopted several teachings and moral values of Judaism, but many people are not aware of it.
Many people believe that “love your neighbor as yourself” was first said by Jesus, not realizing that he was simply quoting the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 19:18), written many centuries before his time. Rabbi Akiba said about this commandment: “This is the greatest principle in the Torah” (Sifra on Leviticus 19:18).
The commandment “to love” occurs three times in the Torah. First, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ as mentioned before, second, ‘love the stranger as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34), and finally, ‘love God with all your heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:5).
How are we to understand the mitzvah of loving our neighbor? How do we understand love, how do we understand neighbor?
What does it mean to love neighbors? It doesn’t refer to feeling love but behaving in a loving way. The verse asks us to do unto others what we would have them do unto us, and to refrain from treating them unfairly. Behavior and actions are what count.
As Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon wrote (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Avel 14:1): “It is a positive command instituted by the Rabbis to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, take the dead to their place of internment; bring the bride to the wedding canopy, accompany guests, and to deal with all the needs of burial, to bring joy to the bride and groom and to provide for all the needs of their wedding banquet, These are acts of kindness that have no limit. They came under the category of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’.”
Who is our neighbor? Just in case we think that the text refers to people from our group only, the verse is followed by the commandment to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:34), meaning those who are not part of our group. Our neighbors may be different from us culturally or ideologically, they may be different in their color, language or behavior, but they are our neighbor.
A story about Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov explains what it means to behave in a loving way toward our neighbor. The rabbi was teaching his students in a public place. He told them: “Every human quality and power was created for a purpose. Even base and corrupt qualities can be uplifted to serve God.”
A bystander challenged him, saying, “You say even base, corrupt qualities can be used to serve God. So tell me, how can the denial of God be used to serve God?”
Rabbi Moshe Leib replied: “If someone comes to you for help, you should not turn that person away with pious words, saying, ‘Have faith! Trust God; He will help you!’ No! You should act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in the world who could help this human being – You!”