How to Love Others as 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 the word rei’a, which when pronounced rei’a 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 friend, 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, Harav Yehuda Wagshal of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim points out that the Targum Onkelos on this verse translates the word v’ahavta — you shall love — into Aramaic as va’tircheim — 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: Is one permitted to say Birkas Ha’ilanos — the annual blessing recited over the flowering trees in the month of Nisan — upon seeing a tree whose fruit is orlah (19:23), as the wording of the blessing praises Hashem for giving us trees for the purpose of our enjoyment, yet the Gemara in Pesachim (22b) rules that orlah is forbidden in consumption and even in enjoyment?

A: Harav Akiva Eiger, zt”l, raises this question and is uncertain about its answer. The Tchebiner Rav, zt”l, explains that the intention of the blessing is to praise Hashem for the Creation, which includes fruit-bearing trees for us to enjoy. It is irrelevant that the fruits on this particular tree are presently forbidden, as they will become permissible in a few years, and as a result, the blessing may be said. The Chelkas Yaakov points out that the blessing praises Hashem for creating fruits for bnei adam to enjoy. This phrase isn’t specific to Jews, and since non-Jews may enjoy the orlah fruits, the blessing may be said. The Kaf Hachaim rules that the blessing may not be said, as it is inappropriate to thank Hashem for objects which He forbade us to use. The Mekor Chaim cites the Mishnah in Orlah (3:9), which teaches that outside of Israel, a fruit whose orlah status is in doubt is permissible. He therefore argues that the blessing can be recited on any tree, as outside the Land of Israel the fruit may be eaten, and even in Israel, it is very rare for a tree to produce full fruits in its first three years, and we therefore needn’t be concerned about it. Additionally, he points out that while benefiting from the fruit is forbidden, enjoying its appearance on the blossoming tree is allowed, and saying the blessing is therefore appropriate.


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.