July 3, 2024
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The Essence of Ve-ahavta Le-re’acha Ka-mocha

The most famous verse in Leviticus may be the command, “Ve-ahavta le-re’acha ka-mocha” (Lev. 19:18). But what exactly does it mean? For example, what is the meaning of the word re’acha here? Does it refer only to Jews or to all human beings?

According to some, re’acha refers only to Jews here. This view is supported by the context. The verse and its preceding verses read as follows (Lev. 19:17-18): “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall not take revenge or feel resentment against bnei amecha; you shall love re’acha as yourself…”

On the other hand, at Exodus 11:2, the Israelites are instructed to ask their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold items. The words re’ehu and re’utah are used, and the reference is clearly to Egyptians. Also, at Genesis 38:12 and 38:20, Judah is described has having a re’a named Hirah and he was not an Israelite. Finally, one of the Ten Commandments instructs not to covet the wife of a re’a. See Ex. 20:14 and Deut. 5:18. Does this mean that it is permissible to covet the wives of non-Israelites? King David was punished for doing just that. (See the story of Uriah the Hittite.) These are all arguments against the narrow meaning of re’a at Lev. 19:18.

Fortunately, as a practical matter, we don’t have to decide the scope of the meaning of rea at Lev. 19:18 (at least in the land of Israel) because of the further verses at Leviticus 19:33-34. There we are told: “If a stranger (ger) lives with you in your land, do not be extortionate to him. The stranger who resides with you should be like a citizen to you. You should love him as yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”

Therefore, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and because of our history as a persecuted minority in the lands of others, we should have a special sensitivity to the non-Jewish citizens in our midst. This is a commandment from the Torah and it should be central to our Jewish identity. The state of Israel must continually keep these principles in mind in the choices it makes and the legislation it passes. How it deals with the non-Jews in the country will be a critical factor in its successes or failures in the future.

A midrash connects the verse “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17–18), to Leviticus 19:33–34, which concerns strangers:

When the Torah refers to the stranger that is to live among you and says that you should love him as yourself, just as it was commanded to the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself,” so the Jewish people is commanded to “love him [the stranger] as yourself because you were strangers in Egypt.” You should know this well from your own experience of being strangers, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The next issue we need to address is the meaning of the instruction ka-mocha—as yourself. This is the crux of the command. Most of us work to provide for ourselves. There is a strong element of self-interest in working. We know that if we don’t work, we won’t eat. But the “as yourself” aspect of Leviticus 19:18 suggests that we should be equally motivated to serve others through our work. This is a very high call: to work to serve others and to work to meet our own needs. If we had to work twice as long to accomplish it—say one shift a day for ourselves and another shift for our neighbor—it would be nearly impossible.

Fortunately, it is possible to love ourselves and our neighbors through the same work, if our work provides something of value to others. A teacher receives a salary that pays the bills, and at the same time imbues students with knowledge and skills that will be equally valuable to them. A hotel housekeeper receives wages while providing guests with a clean and healthy room. In most jobs, we would not stay employed for long if we didn’t provide a value to others at least equal to what we draw in pay. But what if we find ourselves in a situation where we can skew the benefits in favor of ourselves? Some people may have enough power to command salaries and bonuses in excess of the value they truly provide. The politically connected or corrupt may be able to wring large rewards for themselves in the form of contracts, subsidies, bonuses, and make-work jobs, while providing little of value for others. Nearly all of us have moments when we can shirk our duties yet still get paid.

Thinking more broadly, if we have a wide range of choices in our work, how much of a role does serving others make in our job decisions, compared to making the most for ourselves? Almost every kind of work can serve others and please Hashem. But that does not mean that every job or work opportunity is of equal service to others. We love ourselves when we make work choices that bring us high pay, prestige, security, comfort, and easy work. But we love others when we choose work that provides needed goods and services, opportunities for marginalized people, protection for God’s creations, justice and democracy, truth, peace, and beauty. Leviticus 19:18 suggests that the latter should be as important to us as the former.

Instead of striving to meet this high calling, we often relax our understanding of “love your neighbor as yourself” into something banal like “be nice.” But being nice is often nothing more than an excuse for disengaging from the people around us. Leviticus 19:17 commands us to do the opposite. “Reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” These two commands—both to love and to reprove your neighbor—seem like unlikely fellows, but they are brought together in the proverb, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Prov. 27:5).

Too often the lesson we absorb at school and shul is to always be nice. If this becomes our rule in the workplace, it can have disastrous personal and professional effects. Niceness can lead managers to gloss over workers’ shortcomings in performance reviews, depriving them of a reason to sharpen their skills and keep their jobs in the long run. Niceness may also lead one to hold on to resentment, or to bear a grudge. Leviticus tells us that loving people sometimes means making an honest rebuke. But this is not a license for insensitivity. When we rebuke, we need to do so with humility and compassion.

To summarize, the mitzvah of Ve-ahavta Le-re’acha Ka-Mocha is so sweeping that Rabbi Akiva regarded it as a klal gadol ba-Torah.

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank my good friend Mitchell First Esq., for his help in preparing this article.

By Yehiel Levy

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