When Friendship Sours: Vengeance & Bearing a Grudge

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This is one of the most famous verses in the Torah. It is Rabbi Akiva's choice as the verse in the Torah. Similarly, when a convert asked Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel quoted him a restatement of this verse.

The highest ideal, as well as a summary of all that comes before, lies in these words: "Love your neighbor as yourself." How are we to understand this mitzvah?

The simplest understanding, the most literal, is that the verse asks us to do unto others what we would have them do unto us. What does it mean to "love" your neighbor? It means to act toward her in a loving way by being helpful and generous toward her just as we would want her to be helpful and generous toward us. Perhaps, after all, it is not so much a feeling of love as a behaving in a loving way. We then know how to fulfill this mitzvah in an almost utilitarian fashion: think how we want to be treated and act to the other accordingly.

How Much Love for One's Fellow Human Being?

Ramban (Nahmanides, a [13th century] Bible commentator [from northern Spain]) sees a potential problem with this approach and adds another layer to it. He defines this verse as asking us to want for our neighbor whatever we would want for ourselves. He then highlights a problem of this linkage of kamokha, "as yourself."

We may want good things for those we care for, but the "as yourself" could become a limit. I want good things for you but I want the best for me either out of a sense that there is not enough "best" to go around equally to everyone or simply out of a competitive feeling. Instead, kamokha, "as yourself," teaches us that we should love the other as much as ourselves. We should move beyond the constricting coils of jealousy to a place of wanting the best for all those around us.

There is still another interpretation that moves the understanding of kamokha, "as yourself," even further away from being you-centered. This understanding suggests that we should love our neighbor as ourself because our neighbor is just like us. We are all created b'tzelem elohim, "in the image of God." We are commanded to love everyone because we are all fundamentally alike, all images of God. The mystics would say love the other because you and they are a part of the great Oneness of the world.

Love is relational and so is this commandment. We are called not just to cultivate an attitude of loving the other as some abstract principle. The love is in relation to the other. If we are to visit the sick because of this verse (as Maimonides states), we are only to visit the sick who want to be visited. This is not some absolute commandment to be fulfilled whether the other person wants it or not. The other person matters. It is a commandment that can only be fulfilled in relationship to the other. This love of the other is an affirmation of the self and the other.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.