How to Love Other Jews As We Love Ourselves

V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (Vayikra 19:18)

The Torah commands us to love other Jews as we love ourselves. In his commentary on this verse, Rashi quotes Rabi Akiva, who comments that this is the fundamental rule of the Torah, making clear the tremendous value that Judaism places on this mitzvah. However, the Ramban and several other commentators point out that while this concept sounds lofty and inspiring in theory, in practice it is virtually impossible to accomplish. How can we love any other person as much as we love ourselves — let alone every single Jew in the world?

The answer to this apparent difficulty may lie in the fact that in commanding us to love our fellow man as we love ourselves, the Torah does not use the more common word for friend — chaver — but rather a word which, when pronounced rei’ah, means “friend,” but with different vowels can be read as ra, which means “evil.” How can the same word that means friend also connote evil?

Harav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, points out that there is another word that shares this root: teruah, the sound of the shofar that we are commanded to blow on Rosh Hashanah (Bamidbar 29:1). What is the connection between these seemingly disparate concepts? A tekiah is complete and uninterrupted and is therefore associated with tov (good), which is also perfect and whole. A teruah, on the other hand, is a broken sound, so it comes from the root ra to connote the concept of being deficient and lacking, which is the essence of evil.

How does this insight apply to the Torah’s use of the word rei’acha to connote a friend whom we are commanded to love? Rav Hutner explains that the essence of true friendship is that the two friends feel so close to one another that they view themselves as two parts of a whole. Without the other, each person views himself as an incomplete unit, but together, the two partial entities combine to reach fullness and completion.

In other words, while the term “friend” is colloquially used to describe any person with whom we enjoy spending time, the Torah’s definition of friendship encompasses much more: It demands that we view ourselves as two parts of a whole. The Torah conveys this message by deliberately using the word rei’acha to refer to your friend whom you are commanded to love as yourself, as a way of hinting to us that the key to successfully fulfilling this mitzvah is to view yourself as one with every single Jew and to feel their emotions as you would experience your own.

Interestingly, Rav Yehuda Wagshal points out that the Targum Onkelos on this verse translates the word “V’ahavta — You shall love” — into Aramaic as “You shall be compassionate.” What is the connection between love and compassion? The opposite of compassion is achzariyus (cruelty). The commentators point out (see Rashi, Iyov 19:13) that the word achzar can be read as a combination of two words — “ach zar,” which means “only a stranger.”

This teaches us that it is only possible to be cruel to another person if we view him as a stranger, somebody with whom we have no connection. Just as a person would not be mean to himself, so too he cannot be cruel to somebody he views as part of him. Therefore, prior to displaying cruelty to another person, it is necessary to first emotionally dissociate oneself from him and view him as a stranger.

In the opposite direction, a person is similarly inspired to feel compassionate not only toward himself, but also toward anybody with whom he feels a connection. When somebody views another person as part of him, he instinctively feels compassionate toward that person and, as a result, he automatically comes to love him. For this reason, the Targum translates the word ahavah (love)  as racheim (compassion), as feeling an emotional connection to another person is a necessary prerequisite to loving him.

 Q: The Torah forbids the consumption of orlah, the fruits produced by a tree for the first three years (19:23). The Gemara in Shabbos (33b) relates that when Rabi Shimon bar Yochai was forced to flee to a cave to save his life, a carob tree miraculously sprouted there to provide him sustenance. How was he permitted to eat the fruits, which are considered orlah?

 

A: Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz cites the Yerushalmi (Orlah 1:1), which rules that if a tree grows in a place that isn’t designed for human settlement, which was the case with the cave of Rabi Shimon, it is exempt from the laws of orlah. Harav Chaim Kanievsky notes that the Rambam rules that if a tree grows on its own in a public area, such that its fruits are ownerless and available to all, the laws of orlah do not apply to it.

The M’rafsin Igri gives a few answers. First, a tree that grows miraculously is exempt from all laws governing fruits, such as orlah and maaser. Second, the tree may have already been planted elsewhere for more than three years, and if it was transferred to the cave together with its roots, its fruits would be immediately permissible.

Alternatively, Rabi Shimon may have eaten the carob fruits while they were still small and not yet legally classified as fruits that are forbidden as orlah. The Maadanei Asher writes that the fruits were permissible to Rabi Shimon due to the principle of pikuach nefesh — one may transgress any prohibition, with three exceptions, in order to save one’s life — and since he was trapped in the cave with nothing else to eat, he was permitted to eat fruits that would normally be considered orlah. However, he notes that it would be unusual for Hashem to miraculously save Rabi Shimon’s life in a manner that would require him to eat otherwise-forbidden food, especially when many opinions maintain that forbidden food eaten to save one’s life still causes spiritual damage to a person.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.