…and you should love your neighbor as yourself… (Vayikra 19:18)
Few words are more universally recognized and ring more true! However, what does it mean and how is it to be fulfilled exactly? That is a bigger subject but not necessarily more complex.
A Russian peasant farmer who had never left the small and parochial surroundings of his town had occasion to come to the big city of Moscow. He arrived at the elegant hotel with mud on his boots and overalls, looking completely disheveled. The man at the desk assigned him to a room on the top floor and treated him as any other paying customer. With key in hand and he started the long climb to the hotel room.
On the first landing there was a full-length mirror. The man, who had never seen himself before, was suddenly startled and frightened by the imposing image before him. He growled and barked to scare him away only to find that the image in the mirror threatened and shouted back the same. He ran to the next floor and confronted the fearsome giant, again exchanging harsh looks, and almost coming to blows. On the third floor they stood nose to nose and exchanged simultaneous insults as a deepening war-like attitude was taking root in ‘both of them’.
Realizing that he could not escape this ugly beast-like fellow who was aggressively stalking him in the hotel, he ran quickly back to the lobby and the front desk to file a complaint. After having been given a detailed description of the perpetrator, the man at the desk understood that he had met the enemy and it was the man in the mirror. So as to save the face of his guest and to disengage the hostility he offered simple advice. “The fellow whom you confronted is here to protect people. He is really quite harmless. Trust me. If you will show him a harsh and angry countenance he will do the same. However if when you see him you just smile pleasantly and continue on your way he will nod and smile at you as well. Enjoy the rest of your stay.” That’s what he did and perhaps not so remarkably it worked.
It may be the very same idea of the wisest man, King Solomon, “Like the reflection of a face to a face in water so is the heart of one man to another.”
An idea occurred to me that has broad and practical implications, and it may just explain loads of human phenomena on open display today. The Commandment -“Love your neighbor as yourself!” is not only a mandate to do but a simple fact of life. You can only love another to the extent you love yourself. If you witness a person, or a segment of society, or an entire culture destroying and afflicting willful harm, it is a grand projection of a profound lack of self-love, and perhaps even a deep self-loathing. After all, life is self-portrait! Learning to appreciate ourselves therefore, is a primary responsibility we have not just for ourselves but for the benefit of others as well.
A clever Rabbi said, “If someone does not love themselves, then I don’t want them to love me!” I asked a famous psychologist why people who have been abused have a perverse tendency to abuse in turn. He quoted a phrase, “Hurt people hurt people!” What is the biggest hurt of all? Sometimes it is a self-afflicted wound of passivity and early resignation. The whole gauntlet of the world was created to avoid what the Zohar calls the “Bread of Shame”. A person should receive even the ultra-delights of the Next World for nothing! Earning with legitimate effort is the sweetest fruit. Nothing beats living out our positive purpose on the planet. Taking with no hope to return is the ultimate corruption of the soul and the biggest hurt. The first obligation in loving a neighbor therefore is to love your- self! To love our self is to be active and effortful in developing your G-d given potential and enjoying the sweet feeling of real accomplishment.
When potential is unused does it soundly sleep or turn on the world with hostility? The poet Langston Hughes writes, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.