When Friendship Sours: Vengeance & Bearing a Grudge

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True love is an affirmation both of the self and the other. The tradition contrasts this to another kind of love that is dependent on something: ahavah ha-t'luyah b'davar, "love that is conditional." This is love that treats the other as an object. True love is unconditional because the other is just "like you," kamokha. Kedushah, or "holiness," is found when any two people are profoundly connected.

True love is not so common, yet the Torah calls us to try to remember who we are and who the other really is. The more we remember that we are all equal, all created in the image of God, the harder it will be to stereotype others, to want to gossip about them, to want to take revenge upon them. Instead, we recognize in their failings and foibles echoes of our own--that mixture of the divine and the flawed mortal.

Loving Everyone is a Demanding Requirement

In the end, the challenges of these verses from Leviticus can still seem overwhelming. Stop gossiping and love everyone! Yet each step in that direction is important. Each word of gossip left unsaid, each act of generosity, each word of loving reproof that brings change--each of these is of incalculable importance even amid all the times we do the opposite.

The Jewish tradition was aware both of how much was being asked of us and also of how little steps in the right direction can make a difference. The rabbinic comments on "love your neighbor" are not glowing paeans to love. Instead there are a series of comments along the following lines:

"Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: One is forbidden to marry someone before you see them, for perhaps you will find something in them that is unattractive which will make them displeasing to you; and the Torah has written: 'And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (BT Kiddushin 41a)

Even in the act of executing a criminal, the principle of "love your neighbor" applies--not to forgive him but to grant him a humane death:

"The stoning platform [the condemned were thrown from the platform] was two floors in height. Was so much height needed to kill him? R. Nahman said: "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself"--choose a humane death for him.' [That is, the greater height made for a quicker death.]" (BT Sanhedrin 45a)

Thus, in every moment the potential to act from the context of these principles is present for us. We need to act in the everyday world in the confidence that every small positive act always makes a difference.

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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.