In Sefer Vayikra, we are presented with a litany of mandates that guide us along the journey of spiritual growth; these include the mitzvot that reflect the obligations that go along with the privileges inherent in our status as the “chosen people,” endowed with the “Tzelem Elokim” within us. In Parshat Kedoshim, we learn the “dos” and “don’ts” associated with our interpersonal relationships, and are helped to develop the ethical standards that are part and parcel of this status. Thus, we are asked to extend loving kindness, compassion and respect towards one another, as well as avoid such traits as hatred, revenge, jealousy and betrayal. Moreover, compliance with these mitzvot not only benefits the recipients, but also has a positive impact on nurturing our souls. We also learn that the converse is true as well; and if we violate these mandates, then we are also contaminating our holy souls, and disregarding the Godly spark in others. The detailing of these mitzvot is followed by the positive Mitzvah of: “V’ahavtah l’raiecha Kamocha—Love thy neighbor as you love yourselves. I am God.” This particular mandate, which Rabbi Akiva designated as the Mitzvah that encapsulates all of the mitzvot in the Torah, has been the object of debate among the commentators. Some believe that it is unrealistic to expect one to love others as one loves oneself; on the other hand, others wonder how the Torah could encourage “self-love,” which appears to be an “egotistical” and “even narcissistic” trait, as evidenced by the collateral damage wrought by our cultural emphasis on “egotism” over “altruism.”
Yet, the notion of “healthy narcissism” and “self-love” as a positive trait is also supported in current psychological theory and practice. Thus, while “narcissism,” if left unchecked, can be dangerous, Freud, in his theory of psychic development, introduced the concept of “healthy narcissism.” This idea, retained by the “object relations” and “self-psychology” theorists, who departed from classical Freudian theory, posits that from infancy through early childhood, “narcissism,” is not only normal, but also a healthy attribute. During these stages, it is appropriate for a child to be completely focused on expressing his needs, showcasing his prowess and accomplishments; demanding to be noticed, heard and admired and believing that he is capable of accomplishing extraordinary feats; still, in order to ensure that the child moves forward in his healthy psychic development, the socialization process must proceed along a path of acceptance and gradual guidance of parents and caretakers within the context of a loving, safe and supportive environment. Under these conditions, the child is gradually disavowed of his egotism and learns that he must also delay his immediate gratification in deference to the agenda of others; as a result, he gradually learns to temper his “narcissism” and turn it into “self-love” that he can also project onto others. While temporary regressions can be expected, at times challenges such as faulty parenting, grief, loss, sickness and trauma can lead to more permanent loss of this self-love.
I believe that this notion of “healthy narcissism,” or “self-love,” can be applied to understanding the Mitzvah of “V’ahavtah L’reiacha Kamocha.” In a Shiur by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, he offers a comprehensive analysis of this Mitzvah, including the debate among the commentators regarding the possibility of a conflict between two opinions rendered by Rabbi Akiva. It is well known that it was Rabbi Akiva who advanced the view that “V’ahavtah L’reiacha Kamocha—loving one’s neighbor as one loves oneself” is the Mitzvah that encapsulates all the mitzvot in the Torah. Yet, it was also Rabbi Akiva, referenced in the Talmud, Baba Metziah, who ruled that if one is wandering in the desert with a friend and he has only one life-sustaining canteen of water, he must drink it himself, rather than offering it to his friend. Given this response, it appears that Rabbi Akiva not only believes that man possesses an intrinsic love of himself, but also that self-preservation is a healthy attribute; yet, it is easy to see how many of the commentators believe this ruling does not gel with the notion of “V’ahavtah l’reiacha Kamocha…” Indeed, if one truly believes that preserving one’s life is more important than saving the life of another, then how can the Torah challenge him to love others as he loves himself? The commentators referenced by Rabbi Goldberg are divided in their opinions, with some like the Ramban believing that the two opinions are contradictory, and others like the S’fat Emes who reconcile the two. While the scope of this article cannot cover all the opinions, as a start, I would like to begin with the explanation offered by the S’fat Emes, which resonates with Freud’s notion of “healthy narcissism.”
My understanding of the S’fat Emes is that there are actually two mitzvot embedded in the above verse; the first is the objective of this verse, to “love one’s neighbor,” unconditionally, and the second, the pre-requisite to the first, teaches us how to accomplish this, by “loving ourselves,” unconditionally. Viewed from this perspective, the only way one can truly understand the measure by which one can forgive and love others, despite their imperfections and mistakes, is to love and forgive oneself, even in the face of one’s fallibility. And where do we learn how to transcend all the obstacles to this unconditional love? The answer, I would like to suggest, is found in the last two seemingly unnecessary words of this verse: “….Ani Hashem—I am God.” This insertion is meant to remind us that just like Hashem loves us and forgives us our mistakes, He expects us to forgive and love ourselves, and it is only through retrieving our innate “self-love” that we can project this forgiveness and love onto others.
By Renee Nussbaum, PhD
Renee Nussbaum, is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at: [email protected]