Love Yourself, Love Your Neighbor
by Jhos Singer
Earlier today I was lying on my massage therapist’s table, involuntarily yelping as my ligament, tendons, and muscles were being pulled, stretched, and torqued by expert hands and feet. At each discovery of yet another stiff and frozen joint, a voice in my head started to nudge: “So, nu, would it kill you to do a few stretches every day? What do you think, you have all the time in the world? Listen, Cookie, you don’t. Haven’t I been telling you for YEARS that you’re not getting any younger—or more flexible? What they say is true honey: ‘Use it or Lose it’. So, nu? What more do you want I should say? Listen, I love you, okay? I just want you should be able to stay upright and moving for another 20 years. Is that so terrible?”
One side of my brain wanted to turn that channel off—even though I knew, uh….know, that it is all true. I do need to take better care of my officially senior body. I do need to accept the fact that at this point in the ride, muscle loss and stiffness are inevitable but can be tempered by regular exercise and stretching. Then the other side of my brain chimed in, “Hey, at least I walked (OK, ran because I was just a tad behind schedule…) to the appointment and will walk back—a mile each way! That’s something, right?” Right!! Let’s give a shout out for bi-radial symmetry.
This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, contains one of the most important life instructions in all of scripture:
“Do not hate your kin with your heart; rather, surely you shall rebuke those close to you and not lift up error on their account. Do not become vengeful, or bear a grudge against the children of your people; rather, you will love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Mystery.” (Leviticus 19:17-18)
The idea that we should be training our hearts to love folks we are inclined to hate, to speak up when they are behaving badly, and that we learn to love ourselves so we can love them (and thus avoid becoming a mean old goat in the process), is a pretty radical prescription.
The rebuking part gets a deep work-over by the rabbis. On the one hand, they see the innate wisdom in these lines. They also recognize that the admonition is coming from the Mystery, aka God, who often misses key parts of being human. And so, the rabbis gently steer the thought to the other hand where they teach us: if the person you are going to reprimand won’t or can’t hear you, then don’t bother. That is to say, if there isn’t enough trust or love between you, your criticism or call out or talking to, might make things worse rather than better.
And I think this all reflects back on v’ahavta l’reyakha k’mokha, the forecast that we will love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have to practice with ourselves. We have to lovingly nudge ourselves to be patient and kind, to take good care of our bodies, to make healthy and righteous choices. And when we go for the coffee and donut (hey it was a vegan donut!) breakfast, and then wonder why we are being snippy later in the day; or when we laze around enjoying a glass of wine and cheese but ignore stretching out our hamstrings; or when we gossip about someone—the Torah reminds us that we ought to feel a little uneasy. And when that inner, scolding voice chimes in, we get to practice being the person who can hear the critique.
May we learn to find the courage and the kindness, the concern and the chutzpah to speak up— with love — when we see a fellow human mis-stepping. And may we learn to be flexible, strong, and limber as we go on our way.