In one of the most quoted verses in the Torah, we are commanded in this week’s portion to love our contemporaries as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). In fact, the great Rabbi Akiva notes that this dictum is the greatest instruction of the Torah.
Although this commandment seems like a great guiding principle for life, many commentaries, including the Ramban, suggest that this goal is unattainable. The commentaries wonder whether it is actually possible to love others to the extent that we love ourselves.
One of the many answers to this question is offered by RabbiNatan Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka (1849-1927), who suggests that the standard of love “as yourself” required by this commandment speaks less about outcome and more about process. The process we undertake in loving ourselves should be what we activate when we engage in loving others.
We are all intimately familiar with our own personal flaws. Nonetheless, we find ways of overlooking these personal failings when we engage in self-evaluation. What offers us the ability of loving ourselves, despite what we know about our shortcomings, is an understanding that these imperfections are only a small part of who we are as a whole. We choose to focus on the totality of what we offer and conclude that overall, we are of inimitable value. This is precisely the process that the Torah insists we adopt when we evaluate others. We should actively choose to overlook the failings of others, focus on their positives, and conclude with feelings of love.
This process was on glorious display last week when I went on Yom Hazikaron to visit the house of mourning of the most recent Israeli soldier to fall in service. Our next-door neighbors in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, are the Drori family, who tragically lost their son, Eliyahu, in a tank accident a few days prior.
Visiting a shiva house (house of mourning) for a fallen soldier on Yom Hazikaron produced a mix of pain, awe, and meaning that I have never encountered. During my visit, I witnessed a humble mother and father, Roni and Monica, welcoming droves of visitors representing a mix of all slices of Israeli society. Aside from the many soldiers in attendance, I observed traditional Jews, Jews who focus more on the interpersonal laws of the Torah, religious-Zionists, Charedim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), Jews of European descent, Jews of Middle-Eastern descent, young and old, all sitting together and highlighting what unites as they mourned with a family who lost this treasured son. As I observed this evocative scene unfold, my eyes wandered to a sign on the wall announcing that the family will be sitting shiva until right before Shabbat Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim — after the death of the holy ones.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Yom Hazikaron often falls out during the week of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim and its monumental charge of v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, to love others as we love ourselves. The greatest merit for those holy individuals who died for the sake of defending Jewish life in Israel is when we are able to come together and create a unified people deserving of their immeasurable sacrifice.
By Rabbi Dr. Avidan Milevsky
Rabbi Dr. Avidan Milevsky is the former Interim Rabbi of Kesher Israel, The Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He made aliyah last year with his family and is currently an associate professor at Ariel University and a psychologist in Beit Shemesh in Israel.