By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
Published by the Omaha World Herald – May 5, 2012
Today, we read one of the most well-known verses in the Hebrew Bible: “”Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The commandment “to love” occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible. First, love your neighbor as yourself; second, love the stranger as yourself (Leviticus 19:34); and finally, love God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).
What does it mean to “love” your neighbor? What constitutes love in this context? Can love be commanded? Since an emotion cannot be commanded, perhaps this does not refer to an actual feeling of love; rather, it refers to behaving in a loving way, which includes having a sense of responsibility, respect and care. And loving your neighbor applies to the “stranger,” which symbolizes those who we may only know in passing, and those of different nationalities and religions.
The text is in the singular because it is easy to love humankind as an abstract idea; it is more difficult to love the reality of actual people. Who are our neighbors? They are not only the people who live close to us. They may be distant from us culturally, different from us in their ethnicity, in their language, or their dress, but they are our neighbors because they were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
The explicit commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself; the implicit commandment is to love ourselves. To be able to love others we have to first love ourselves. But we don’t have to stop there. Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we have, so should be love our neighbors despite the faults they have. Just as we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, so do we have to give them the benefit of the doubt. They are like us; their lives are unique and precious as our own lives.
This is not an abstract idea; therefore, let us find ways we can express such love to our neighbors.