Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.

#2 Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com

“Love your neighbor as yourself – I am God.” (Leviticus 19:18)

“Love your neighbor” is the universal Golden Rule, which the Talmud defines as a “great principle” of Judaism. 1 How we treat others is a litmus test of our spiritual health. Since God is the ultimate “giver,” 2our pursuit of Godliness is driven by acts of giving. 3

When I give, I become more embracing and inclusive of the world. I expand my “personal investment portfolio” of the people I’ve helped. Seeing that bit of self in another attaches me emotionally and endears me to them. In this way, the giving actually leads to love. 4

This is the Kindness Paradox: the biggest beneficiary of kindness is the one performing it. (That’s why parents love their children most of all; it is their greatest investment.) Significantly, the Hebrew word for “give” – hav – is the etymological root of ahava, meaning “love.” 5

Chasing Kindness

Practically speaking, one becomes a “giver” by focusing on the needs of others: What are they feeling? What are their worries? How can I help?

Growing up, my father, of blessed memory, modeled this trait. I remember riding with him through a classic Buffalo, New York rainstorm. He pulled up to a bus stop, rolled down the passenger-side window, and – in an era when people trusted one another more – asked: “Would anyone like a ride?”

We should be as concerned with other’s needs as we are with our own. 6

The Sages speak of Rodef Chesed, literally “chasing kindness.” In Jewish consciousness, kindness is not a function of begrudgingly acceding to someone’s request. Nor is it giving with the (ultimately self-serving) expectation the kindness will be reciprocated.

Rather, “chasing kindness” means going out of our comfort zone to actively seek opportunities to give with the sole motivation to care for the welfare of others.

Anonymous giving is not tainted with any honor-seeking.

“Giving selflessly” is key. The giving of charity is regarded as a higher level when performed anonymously, as it is not tainted with the motivation of honor-seeking. 7 [One valid reason for not giving anonymously is to help inspire others to give.]

The Torah defines one particular act as the ultimate chesed, true act of kindness: Taking care of funeral arrangements for someone who died. This is true chesed because there is absolutely no expectation of return.

Foundation of Relationships

Years ago, when I was engaged to be married, I asked a great sage of Jerusalem: “What is the key to a successful, happy marriage?”

The foundation of any relationship, he explained, is a focus on giving: How can I best contribute to the other’s welfare? If both partners share this attitude, the relationship flows beautifully in both directions, building connection and a common bond of unity and love.

Yet when the focus is on taking – “What will s/he do for me?” – the dynamic pulls in the opposite direction, away from the spouse, creating strain and tension.

Chesed starts at home; it’s the foundation of a loving, enduring marriage.

Avoid the Negative

As any baby will attest, humans are innately selfish. That’s why, in describing the kindness imperative, the great sage Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” 8 This negative formulation of the Golden Rule forces us to think how it would feel to be on the receiving end of indignities we’d rather be spared.

Once this first stage of not harming others is inculcated – e.g. “Don’t litter” – it extends to a higher level of ethical living, e.g. picking up trash on the street.

Some examples of “What is hateful to you…”:

  • Don’t embarrass others. 9
  • Don’t gossip or speak negatively about others. 10
  • Don’t take revenge. 11
  • Don’t disturb another person’s concentration or sleep. 12
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. 13
  • Don’t keep others waiting. 14
  • Don’t display anger toward others. 15
  • Protect others from injury or loss. 16
  • Be honest in business dealings. 17

That’s a long list. Each item takes a lifetime to master. And it’s exactly what we’re here for!

Empathy vs. Sympathy

An important way to build “kindness muscles” is to empathize with others’ problems.

Imagine your friend is in a deep, dark hole. “Sympathy” means standing at the top of the hole, peering in, and saying “Oh, that’s so hard!” “Empathy” means crawling into the hole and being there with them.

Moses, the greatest Jewish leader, went to the slave labor field and put his shoulder to the grindstone. 18 He felt others’ pain as his own, and helped alleviate that burden.

In 19th century Lithuania, the Jewish community of Kovno operated a homeless shelter which fell into disrepair. Despite various appeals, the community failed to fix the facility.

One evening, the town’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yisrael Salant, went to sleep in the shelter. He vowed to continue doing so until proper repairs were made.

Fulfilling the Command

To inure this principle against varying moods and circumstances the Torah states “Love your neighbor” as an obligation. It is a mistake to wait until we’re emotionally “inspired” to help others. People are influenced by their actions and eventually our emotions will catch up with our deeds. 19

Everyday life presents myriad opportunities for doing good. Some fun and practical ideas:

  • Greet everyone with a smile. 20
  • Keep your word. 21
  • Help someone struggling with a load. 22
  • Invite friends to a Shabbat dinner. 23
  • Ask an elder for “sagely advice.” 24
  • Support a Gemach free loan fund. 25
  • Visit patients at the local hospital. 26
  • Care especially for widows and orphans. 27
  • Call your mother with gratitude for the gift of life. 28
  • Be careful with other’s property. 29
  • Offer a human word to the grocery clerk. (“Are you doing okay today?”)
  • Make peace between two people arguing. 30
  • Serve meals at a homeless shelter. 31
  • Remove temptations for others to falter – e.g. don’t make it easy for people to steal your things. 32
  • Offer constructive criticism. 33
  • Don’t stand idly by when another’s life is in danger. 34

Chesed is a crucial component of our spiritual-emotional health. The Dead Sea got its name because – as the lowest point on Earth – water flows in but never flows out. This inability to give to others is what the Talmud likens to the malnourished and withered “walking dead.”

One good way to nurture a giving spirit is to declare each morning: “I accept to focus on the mitzvah of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 35

King David said, Olam chesed yi-baneh – “the world is built on kindness.” 36 Chesed means reaching out altruistically, with love and generosity to all. The Talmud says that baseless hatred between Jews brought about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We can rebuild it through unconditional love.

1. Jerusalem Talmud – Nedarim 9:1
2. Psalms 145:8; Maimonides – Commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin (First Principle of Faith)
3. Deut. 11:22, 28:9
4. Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rabbi E.E. Dessler
5. ibid.
6. Mishneh Torah – Deyos 6:3
7. Mishneh Torah – Matanot Aniyim 10:8.
8. Talmud – Shabbat 31a
9. Talmud – Baba Metzia 58b
10. Leviticus 19:16
11. Leviticus 19:18
12. Talmud – Kiddushin 31a; Teshuvot V’Hanhagot 2:50
13. Leviticus 19:15
14. Mesilat Yesharim 11, s.v. “V’Lo Od”
15. Talmud – Nedarim 22a
16. Leviticus 19:16
17. Ibid 25:14
18. Exodus 2:11; Midrash Rabba – Exodus 1:27
19. Sefer HaChinuch 16
20. Talmud – Avot 1:15
21. Deut. 23:24
22. Exodus 23:5
23. Talmud – Kiddushin 39b
24. Talmud – Derech Eretz 6:2
25. Sefer HaChinuch 479
26. Talmud – Shabbos 127a
27. Deut. 26:12
28. Talmud – Kiddushin 30b
29. Sefer HaChinuch 51
30. Talmud – Avot 1:15
31. Talmud – Avot 1:12
32. Leviticus 19:14
33. Deut. 26:12
34. Leviticus 19:16
35. Arizal
36. Psalms 89:3

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