Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

“You shall love your neighbour as yourself” – Leviticus 19:18


This verse is arguably the most universally-known teaching of the Torah.

But how can we be commanded to feel something that isn’t in our heart, to generate feelings for someone we don’t care for?

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once commented: “I learned the meaning of love from two drunks in conversation.”

The first drunk said: “I love you.”

“No you don’t,” replied the other.

—“Yes, I do, with all my heart.”

— “No you don’t. If you love me, why don’t you know what hurts me?”

Perhaps what the second fellow was telling his drinking partner was that “if you really loved me you would know that the reason I drink is because I am hurting inside and I’m trying to escape from my pain and misery. So you don’t really love me at all; you love how you feel when we’re drinking together.”

According to this definition, true love is other-centred and has less to do with how I feel in another’s presence than how I make them feel in mine.

Interestingly, the etymological root of the Hebrew word for love, ahavah, is hav which means “to give”. This teaches us both about the function of love and how love functions.

Unlike the common perception that the more we love, the more we give, Judaism teaches that the more we give, the more we love.

Put simply, the quality of our love is often determined by the quantity of our caring and sharing.

Like a muscle, our capacity for love can be stretched by exercising our faculty of kindness and generosity. This idea helps explain how it is possible to generate affection for those we may not have feelings for.

By stopping to take notice of and attuning ourselves to the interests, needs, fears, and aspirations of another we develop feelings for them, rather than strictly the other way around.

A story: the friend of an individual who had drifted from Jewish life once met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of sainted memory. During their conversation the Rebbe asked the man whether he had maintained contact with this individual.

He answered that not only were they in touch, they had remained good friends.

“And how is he doing with parnasah [livelihood]? the Rebbe asked. “Does he have a stable source of income?” The man responded, “To be honest, I don’t know.”

The Rebbe said pointedly: “If you don’t know whether his financial situation is in order, how can you call yourself a good friend?”

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson

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