Loving your neighbor as yourself
by Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha, Acharei Mot/Kiddushin, includes the enigmatic scriptural sound byte: V’ahavta l’reyacha k’mocha—And you will love your neighbor as your self. You will find this tidbit in Leviticus 19:18, which in its entirety reads: “Don’t avenge and don’t bear a grudge against the children of your people, and you will love your neighbor as yourself; I am God.”
Really and truly this one line of Torah could be a life’s work in and of itself. So where to start? The desire for revenge is great when we have been accosted, the inclination to blame and despise, malign and repel those who we perceive as “other” is basically second human nature. We bear grudges all the time whether based on an experienced affront or even just rumor—our species leaps to negative conclusions about each other like squirrels bounding through the branches of a great redwood. Not to mention, how are we ever going to “love our neighbor” when we spend so much time thinking poorly of ourselves? So, Nu? Is there any hope for us?
That’s where spiritual practice comes in. To take time out of the week to dwell on letting go, seeing things from a different perspective, imagining a positive outcome rather than an imagined comeuppance is one way to counter those instincts to revenge and resentment. One might go about this by attending services or seeking the grace of a trusted friend, reading inspirational tracts or by binge watching a historical fiction show about the 18th century Pirates of the West Indies.
Julie and I just finished watching “Black Sails” which I’d hazard to say was one of the most inspirational spiritual “texts” we’ve “studied” in a while. On the surface it’s a rough and tumble, bloody, violent, and sometimes lascivious romp through the lives and adventures of the notorious Pirates of the Caribbean. But in fact it’s about loyalty and persuasion, power and intimacy, and most of all, it’s about loving your pirate neighbor as you do your pirate self.
The story goes deep into the hearts, minds, psyches, and spirits of a group of, on first glance, terrible people. However, the viewer comes to see these miscreants as broken and beloved, brazen and brilliant, noble even. The writers went deep into who these people were, what motivated them, their vision, and considered the totality of their lives rather than limiting them to their notorious exploits. In short order Julie and I found ourselves filled with compassion and understanding, coming to love and respect these very flawed and otherwise malevolent folks. For who amongst us doesn’t harbor terrible thoughts, rage, or hatred—even as we are also fragile and in pain, struggling and hopeful? Letting those on-screen pirates into our hearts, well, created a pathway to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” It required time to dig down deep, looking beyond the surface in order to drill into the soul.
I loved spending time with those Pirates, but alas there were only 4 seasons, just enough to get through one really bad cold. Fortunately we have the Torah whose wisdom and stories, flawed heroes and honorable villains, reckless prophets and cautious warriors, also draw us in to seeing them and, by extension, ourselves as whole, complex beings—capable of both terrible and beautiful things.
May this Shabbat offer you the time to ponder and practice the daring, delightful and demanding challenge of resisting revenge, letting go of grudges, and truly, madly, deeply loving your neighbor as yourself.