Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture a little African child sitting with his family and eating dinner. Try to imagine a little village school in a small African village. I am sure the images you have in your mind and the reality on the ground would not be so different. However, when we ponder these things, it is difficult to visualize the wonderful and beautiful images that are also present, until we are face to face with these images.
Yes, African nations have poverty and other challenges, but in those same nations are human beings attempting to live their lives to the best of their ability. And, for too long now, those of us who live in the Developed World, the Global North, have been telling these developing countries, the Global South, how to succeed. While there are success stories in the Global South, families who are able to make a better life for themselves, more importantly we are also left with a large percentage of the world’s population facing famine, disease and certain death.
In June, as I was traveling with the American Jewish World Service as part of a rabbinical student delegation to Senegal, I thought I knew what to expect. When the plane descended into Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, I began to visualize the images I had in my head of the little African children I had first seen on the cover of the album “We are the World” many years ago. I remembered the first time I thought I understood what Bono of the band U2 was writing about when he wrote “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
I began to worry about how I would respond to what I would see. After all, maybe for the first time in my life, I was going to be faced with a degree of poverty that I had only read about in the news. Sure, I worked in soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the States. I had participated in many hunger walks and food drives. But, this was going to be different. And, from the moment I arrived at the Baggage Claim in the airport, it was different – far different from anything I could have possibly imagined.
As we were waiting for our bags, we met the men who were going to help carry our luggage to the bus. One of the men, a very nice man who spoke English very well, saw that I had some garbage in my hand. He said, “This is Africa, man, just drop it on the ground.” When I responded that I would rather take care of it myself, he said, “Why, this is Africa?” I am not sure even today if he was joking or not. Yes, there was a lot of garbage in many places we went. My first impression of Senegal was not so different than what I had expected. Over the next 11 days, however, my impressions, my feelings, my heart strings and my entire being changed and in many different ways.
“V’Ahavtah Lereiacha Kamocha,” Love your neighbor as yourself, what does this really mean? When we read these words or any words from the Torah, the onus is on us to examine the rabbinic commentaries and dialogue to open up doors to new meanings and understandings of what the words mean. Sifting through these commentaries allows us to continue to learn, examine and even disagree with our texts – but with a greater depth of knowledge to support our thoughts.
The Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, a French rabbi from the 11th and 12th centuries, presents a commentary on these three words. Rashbam suggests that we should only love our neighbors if they are good and deserving of love. He continues to state that if they are evil, we should not be kind to them. Rashbam relies on Proverbs 9:13, “To fear the Lord is to hate evildoers” to make his point.
In other words, Rashbam’s argument is if someone is acting unfairly to you or your family, we DO NOT automatically love them. Rashbam goes even further in his interpretation not to vilify the neighbors, referencing the neighbors as good people deserving of good treatment. The point is that in order for us to love our neighbors, we must ensure that they are good people who deserve to be loved. If they are evil doers, we are to hate them, and not be kind to them.
Along with the examination of “V’ahavtah”, and you shall love, Rashbam also ponders the meaning of “Reiacha,” “Your Neighbors.” In Hebrew, “Ra” means bad or evil; “Rei” means neighbor. In this wordplay, it appears that Rashbam suggests that the evil, the “ra” refers to our non-Jewish neighbors and the love belongs only to our “reiacha.” The suffix “cha” translates to your, which reflects our Jewish neighbors.
My question this morning is – who are our neighbors? When we say neighbor, are we referring to those who live next door, those that live in our city, our state or our country? What about those that live in other countries around the world? What is our responsibility to those neighbors? If this word play causes you to feel discomfort or does not seem right, GREAT because we then have the opportunity to look to another commentator for another possible conclusion.
Rabbi Akiva, as we are told in the Talmud, believed V’ahavtah Lereiacha Kamocha to be “a great principle of the Torah.” Rabbi David Silverberg, a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, comments that although this principle is key, it does not encapsulate the essence of Torah. After all, we have to consider how we define the word love. When we make mistakes in our lives, we often get upset at ourselves. And, in that moment, I would argue that we do not truly love ourselves. It is vital to learn and discover how to love ourselves and understand what that means before we are able to love our neighbors the same. “When God created man, he was created in the image of God.” When we love ourselves, when we are truly able to love ourselves, we love God. All of this we find in the Torah –The history of humanity – a manual of how to proceed in our lives without dwelling on our past mistakes.
Ramban – Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides – one of our great teachers, who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries, teaches that these three words, “V’Ahavtah Lereiacha Kamocha” are a great overstatement. In fact, he uses another of Rabbi Akiva’s teachings, “Your life takes precedence over the life of your neighbor,” to prove his point. Nachmanides is not telling us not to love our neighbors. He is making a point that I mentioned earlier – we must truly be able to love ourselves – in order to begin loving anyone or anything else. For Nachmanides, there is no distinction between Jews, proselytes, those that leave Judaism and gerim, Jews by choice. We should love each other, everyone, equally. However, if we do not understand how to love ourselves, then it does not matter.
It seems that Rabbi Silverberg and Nachmanides agree with each other in that we must first love ourselves in order to truly love the other, our neighbors. Ramban uses the example of the love from the Book of Samuel, the love that Jonathan had for David. If you recall, David became King Saul’s favorite, even more than his own son Jonathan, which certainly could have led to some jealousy. However, Jonathan had removed all forms of jealousy out of his heart and truly loved David as he loved himself. It is the love Jonathan had for David which is the purest example of loving oneself as one would love God. And if we were all created “B’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God, than when we love each other, we also love God, and vice versa.
Friends and family, the challenge that we are presented with is clear. Although we may have preconceived notions or stereotypes of the “other” in the world, it is imperative that we step outside of our safe circles and create a world in which every man woman and child is seen as equal. The catch phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” gets tossed around very often, especially in liberal Jewish communities. We say that we want to help all of those who are in need and we even have great programs such as food drives, fundraising campaigns, etc. But, are we really helping? Yes, I believe every effort, no matter how large or small is beneficial for those in need.
HOWEVER, WE MUST DO MORE.
I am not suggesting that each of us should drop everything we are doing and jump on a plane and fly to Senegal or any country in the Global South – the developing world.
What I am challenging each of us is this – do not just do a Mitzvah project. We make the biggest difference when we pay attention. We must look, read and study about how we can make the biggest difference. Although we may think we are helping those who are in need, often times we are doing more harm in the process.
When the catastrophe hit Haiti, one of the first actions our government took was to send rice, tons and tons of rice to Haiti. On paper, this act seemed to be extremely helpful. After all, the Haitians needed food, among other things. However, in Haiti, the rice crop had just begun to be harvested. So, the Haitian farmers were not able to sell what they had grown for their own citizens. In effect, the United States put many farmers out of work in our attempt to help.
Throughout my experiences in Senegal, 3 words from our Torah kept appearing and reappearing in my mind. “V’Ahavtah Lereiacha Kamocha,” You shall love your neighbor as yourself. When we first visited our village, Ker Douda Cisse, I began to understand what it meant to live those words. The people we encountered in the village were so kind and grateful to visit with us; they welcomed us into their homes with open arms. And, truthfully, after only a few hours, we were no longer guests; we were villagers. In our attempts to communicate with them in English and in their native tongue, Wolof, we bonded in such a way that erased all of our differences and the many boundaries that seemed to exist when we first arrived.
I intend to make this ideal a huge part of my rabbinate and the very essence of my being – Treat everyone you meet with the same respect as you want to be treated.
My hope is that each of us will challenge ourselves and those whom we have elected to make the right decisions in the future with regards to aid to those who need it. May we enjoy our Sabbath of rest and peace today, realizing that when Shabbat is over, we have tremendous amounts of work to do to finally accomplish “V’Ahavtah Reiacha Kamocha.” After all, when we do, we will live in the world of Isaiah’s prophecy, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.”
Kein Yehi Ratzon! May this be God’s will!