V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha — “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”
These may be three of the best-known words of the Torah, and a precept that has been inculcated in us since our earliest childhood. Yet it is one of the hardest precepts to practice.
Even in regard to our close friends, the full scope of this mitzvah is a challenge.
There is a well-known parable — it was told by the Maggid of Mezeritch — of two close friends, one a pauper, the other the king’s closest adviser. One day the poor man was accused of robbing the king’s treasury and sentenced to death.
The convicted man pleaded that he be allowed to go home for a month, after which he would return to the capital and the sentence would be carried out.
The king’s adviser offered to serve as a guarantor so that his friend could go home for a month and bid his family farewell.
When the month was up the convicted man did not arrive, and the king’s adviser was seized and brought to the scaffold. Before the sentence was actually carried out, however, his friend came panting in.
The king’s adviser declared that since he had already endured the humiliation of being brought to the scaffold, it was almost equivalent to the pain of actually being hanged. Therefore he did not wish to be taken down from the scaffold; he asked that his friend be allowed to live instead of him. The poor man, however, would not hear of it; he firmly rejected the idea, insisting that he be hanged as planned.
When the king heard about this, he announced that he would pardon both the friends — on one condition: that he be accepted as the third friend in this close relationship.
“This is [the meaning of] “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha Ani Hashem,” the Maggid concluded. “‘Hashem wants to be the third ‘friend’ (so to speak.)’”
Few of us can aspire to reach such an exalted level of ahavas Yisrael that we could entertain the thought of giving our life for another, even when that other is our closest friend.
Yet the mitzvah of V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha applies to the way we relate to every Yid.
The Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, Harav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, zy”a, would say that loving a talmid chacham is considered ahavas haTorah, not ahavas Yisrael.
“V’ahavta l’reachu kamocha was not referring to the Satmar Rav or Harav Aharon Kotler,” the Rebbe would say. “Who could not love a Satmar Rav or a Rav Aharon?”
Rather, the Rebbe explained, the mitzvah obligates us to love someone whom there is no obvious reason to love, who may in fact be quite difficult even to like.
During the Knessiah Gedolah that took place in Vienna in Elul 5683 (1923), the Chofetz Chaim explained that the mitzvah of loving your fellow “as yourself” means that just like a person continues to love himself despite all his inherent faults, so should one love his fellow despite his faults.
In sefer Shemiras Halashon, the Chofetz Chaim brings a powerful parable.
Reuven had a personal dispute with Shimon and made no attempt to hide his hatred towards him.
One day Yehudah — someone broadly respected as a man of truth and integrity — approached Reuven.
“You told me that Shimon is a man of ill-repute and that you despised him. But you are sorely mistaken! For I saw Shimon visiting a gadol who is famed as a gaon and a tzaddik — and this gadol accorded Shimon great honor!”
Reuven was very surprised by Yehudah’s statement, and responded by telling him that he was no longer certain.
“Perhaps I erred regarding Shimon’s true character,” he said. “But is also possible that Shimon is such a cunning and devious person that he managed to deceive a gadol. In any case, I will desist from speaking against him.”
A few days later, Yehudah again approached Reuven.
“I saw Shimon — a person you still thought might be devious — visiting the Rishonim, and they too accorded him great esteem and love. In regard to [the contemporary] gadol, you claimed that he might have been deceived, but this is certainly not possible to say regarding them!”
This time Reuven was convinced. “You are right,” he declared. “The evil inclination fooled me.”
But Yehudah wasn’t finished yet.
“Shimon visited the great Tannaim of the Mishnah and they too praised him. Eliyahu Hanavi told the Tannaim to whom he appeared frequently that in Shamayim they also spoke about Shimon, and that he heard from Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself that He loves Shimon!”
When Reuven heard these words he began to tremble and fell to the ground crying: “Woe to me that I thought I was the tzaddik and he was the evildoer…” His heart filled with regret, he acknowledged he had misinterpreted the “facts,” for Hashem before Whom all is revealed had stated that He loved Shimon…
The Chofetz Chaim reminds us of the passuk Ahavti eschem, amar Hashem : “I love you, says Hashem,” to each and every Yid! Every single Yid is a beloved child of Hashem!