his one goes out to the one I love / This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time / This one goes out to the one I love
– R.E.M., “The One I Love,” Document (1987 album)
The Torah doesn’t command anything impossible, right? So how can it expect us to “Love your neighbor as yourself”?<1> We could understand “Love your neighbor.” But “as yourself” sounds unrealistic. How can you possibly care about others as much as you care about yourself?
The Ramban asks this question. Here’s his formulation of the problem:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is an exaggeration, as a person’s heart cannot possibly love his friend as [much as] he loves himself. Besides, Rabbi Akiva already came and taught (Bava Metzia62a), “Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”<2>
In other words, even Rabbi Akiva, who declares that this mitzvah is a great principle of the Torah (kelal gadol baTorah),<3> agrees that when it comes down to it, you come first. Doesn’t that contradict the straightforward understanding of “Love your neighbor as yourself”?
There are two types of answers to this question. One approach reinterprets the mitzvah in light of the problem, and the other approach argues that it is indeed possible to care about others as you do about yourself. The Ramban follows the first approach, as follows:
Rather, the Torah’s command is that he should love his friend in everything, just as he loves himself in all good [things]. It could be that the reason why it doesn’t say “et re’akha” [with an indirect object] but rather “l’re’akha” (“for your neighbor”) – and similarly, when it says regarding a convert “Love him as yourself” (verse 34), it says “lo” (“for him”) – is because it means one should compare, in his mind, the love of the two of them. Sometimes a person loves his neighbor in limited areas – [wishing] that he do well in wealth but not wisdom, and the like. [Even] if he loves him in everything, he wishes that his beloved neighbor get wealth, property, honor, knowledge, and wisdom. But not that he should equal him – in his heart he still wishes to have more than [the neighbor] in everything good. Scripture commands that this lowly jealousy must not exist in his heart. Rather, he should love everything good for his friend, just as a person does for himself, and not put limits on [this] love. This is why it says regarding Yonatan (Shmuel Alef 20:17) that “he loved [David] with the love of himself,” because he removed the trait of jealousy from his heart, saying [to David] (Ibid. 23:17), “You should rule over Israel [and I’ll be your second-in-command].”
Notice that according to the Ramban, the word kamokha (“as yourself”) doesn’t mean “as much as,” but “just as.” The same way that you want the best for yourself, you should want the best for others. All you’re expected to do is to overcome the immature selfishness that says “I’m the only one who can have good things.” You will always care more about yourself than about anyone else, but that’s okay.
In contrast, the Rambam doesn’t seem to be bothered by the problem of self-love. He simply states, “Every person has an obligation to love every Jewish person as himself (kegufo), as it says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”<4> Apparently he thinks you can do it! The question is how that’s possible.
To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at self-love. The famousmashgiach ruchani (spiritual mentor), Rav Eliyahu Lopian, describes the situation as much worse than we might think. Forget about loving others as much as you love yourself; maybe truly “loving others” is a big lie:
Every type of love we know in the world, whether the love of an item or a person – every natural love – you cannot explain as the lover loving something else, but rather the opposite – he loves himself. In other words, he loves to enjoy himself with this beloved thing, and that’s it. It’s like someone who goes to a restaurant to eat. The waiter asks him, “What would you like?” (Literally, what do you love?) He answers, “I love fish!” Any child understands that he doesn’t love fish, he loves himself by eating fish…<5>
If Rav Lopian is correct, there’s a problem. How can you make sure that “the one I love” isn’t in fact “a simple prop to occupy my time”? If you just love yourself, how then can you truly love anyone else? I found two answers to this question.
First, according to the Slonimer Rebbe, what you need to do is get over yourself:
The righteous have a saying: “The love of Jews is a segulah (charm, possibility-maker) for the love of God.” The simple meaning is that the only way it is possible to love Jews is when a Jew is mevatel (he nullifies) his yeshut (self). When an egotistical person is wrapped up in self-love, he cannot possibly, under any circumstances, love another. And the root of all hating and fighting is the self. Because as long as one has even a bit of self, he feels as if the other is standing in his way. Only when a Jew nullifies and uproots his self completely, can it be relevant for his heart to include the love of Jews. By extension, it is understood that this is the key through which it is possible for one to reach the love of God.<6>
Second, according to Rav Shimon Shkop, what you need to do is redefine yourself:
In the foundation of the creation of man, God implanted in him the desire of self-love to a very large degree. . . . At first glance, the feelings of self-love and love of others contradict each other. But we must try to go deep enough to find the key which unites them, since God demands them both of us. This key is that a person should clarify and verify the quality of his “I” (ego), since that is how every person is measured: For a coarse and lowlife person, his “I” is completely limited to his body and physicality. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” combines his body and soul. Above him is someone who includes in his “I” his family members. If a person walks in the ways of the Torah, his “I” includes the entire Jewish people. After all, every Jew is like a limb of the body of the Jewish nation. There are even more levels which a complete person should incorporate into his soul: to feel that all the worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only a tiny limb of the entire creation. In this way, the feeling of self-love can help him love the entire Jewish nation and the entire creation.
In my [Rav Shkop’s] opinion, this idea is hinted at in the statement of Hillel, who used to say: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am [only] for myself, what am I?”<7> If he constricts his “I” to a narrow radius, only as far as he can see, then what is this “I”? It’s worthless and like nothing. But if he can bring himself to feel that all of creation is one big person, and he is a small limb in this huge body, then his value too is high and impressive. In a big machine, even the smallest screw – if it serves a function in the machine – is extremely important. The whole is built of parts, and the whole is only the sum of its parts.<8>
To summarize: the Slonimer Rebbe makes use of the Chassidic idea of bitul hayesh, self-nullification, to explain how you can fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor. Only if you can nullify yourself can you love others. Rav Shkop makes use of the psychoanalytical idea of expanding one’s ego boundaries.<9> True, it’s only yourself whom you truly love. But if you can imagine your self as expanding to include others as well, you should be able to love them as part of loving yourself. Perhaps then you can say “the one I love,” and mean it – truly, madly, deeply.
- Ramban (1194-1270) on Vayikra19:17.
- Sifra (Torat Kohanim), Kedoshim, Parashah 2, Chapter 4, #12.
- Rambam (1138-1204), Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot6:3.
- Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (1876-1970), Lev Eliyahu, Vol. 1, Parashat Vayetze, p. 110.
- Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe, 1911-2000),Netivot Shalom, Shavuot, Essay 4, p. 357.
- Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, 1:14.
- Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1940), Sha’arei Yosher, Introduction to Volume 1.
- See, for example, http://www.answers.com/topic/ego-boundaries