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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Kedoshim - How to Love Others

Parashat Kedoshim opens with the commandment kedoshim te’hiyu ki kadosh ani - you shall be holy for I (God) am holy. God, we read, is inherently holy yet our path to holiness that is expected from us is only attained through the observance of many mitzvot. Through our actions, through the way we live our lives, we are able to, expected to, mimic God’s holiness.

Interestingly, and of course intentionally, most of these commandments that put us on this path are those that define our relationships with other human beings. We are, among other mitzvot, instructed to not favor the poor nor show deference to the rich, to leave behind the gleanings of our fields for the stranger and poor, to neither insult the deaf nor place a stumbling block in the path of the blind. 

In the words of this parasha we also find the Torah’s command about the love we are meant to feel towards others, which should serve as the basis for our relationships with other human beings in this world. In two places we find the commandments that teach how we are meant to love others. In Chapter 19, verse 18 it is written, “v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha - and you shall love your fellow as yourself” and in verse 34, “v’ahavta lo [ha’ger] kamocha - and you shall love each [stranger] as yourself.” 

At first glance, one might think that the second verse is unnecessary, that the commandment to love one’s fellow as themselves suffices to teach the lesson about how we are meant to feel about and treat those around us. Yet the Torah, infinite in its wisdom, is quick to recognize the necessity in separating these into two separate teachings because they define two very different relationships. The first, ahavat reacha - love for your fellow, speaks to the relationship for people in your community, people with whom you share a common language, value system and beliefs. This kind of love might seem obvious, easy to feel - but there would not be a commandment if this was the case. The Ramban (writing in 13th century Spain) wrote regarding this idea that, “this is an expression by way of overstatement, for a human heart is not able to accept a command to love one’s [fellow] as oneself.” Even for the person with whom you share a familial or tribal connection, the human heart may not be able to feel the sort of love expected of it by the Torah. Moses Mendelssohn (Germany, 18th century) similarly interpreted the challenge presented by this mitzvah, writing, "you shall love your fellow in all the ways of love that you love yourself - equal in quality of love and not in its quantity”. Both teachers believe that we must strive to fulfill the mitzvah but recognize just how difficult this is for human beings. 

The challenge presented by the mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself is what necessitates stating explicitly the second mitzvah to love the stranger as yourself. If loving a person who is similar to you presents a nearly impossible challenge, then all the more so when it comes to those with whom you do not have any shared history or culture. The Torah is trying to teach us that there is no shame or weakness in recognizing that the path towards understanding those different from us is not a simple one. But we do come up short in fulfilling our obligations to God and to humanity when we refuse to live up to the commandment of loving the stranger as we do ourselves. 

The commandments to love both those similar to and different from us is all well and good, but if we recognize the difficulties in doing so then the question remains ‘how do we do this’? The answer is found in what is shared by both verses when they command us to love others “kamocha - as yourselves”. We can only ever truly fulfill the commandment of loving others if we begin from a place of love for ourselves. One message about loving oneself that I particularly like is attributed to the late Maya Angelou who posited, “I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.” I think Angelou, without intending to of course, was speaking to the love described in this week’s parasha. Life without love is not meaningless, but the spark of our humanity cannot be fully kindled into a flame without it. In this sense, life itself depends on love in order to exist, to reach its fullest potential. Love must, necessarily, begin from within. Only once we can love ourselves to our fullest capability can we truly begin to fulfill one of highest commands, to love others with that same power and intensity. 

Friends, may you all be blessed with the gift of love:

For yourselves, to accept and embrace all you are,

For others, to feel the peace and beauty that loving others affords us and receive all the blessings of that love returned to you. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

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