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What It Really Means To Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Topic: Kabbalistic Concepts | Posted:May 4, 2016

The portion Kedoshim contains in it a verse we have all heard many times: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Rabbi Akiva says that this is the purpose of the entire teaching and revelation of the Torah. And Rav Ashlag begins with the understanding that if Rabbi Akiva's statement is true, which of course it is, then "love your neighbor as yourself" is the entirety of the purpose of all spiritual work.

When we think of loving our friend or neighbor as ourselves, we tend to think that means doing actions of sharing. However, Rav Ashlag tells us that the whole purpose of our spiritual work does not mean that to love your friend is to share with him, but that to love your friend means that you love him as much as you love yourself, and not to any single degree less than. An example of this would be that when you're about to take a sip of tea or eat a sandwich, you stop first and say, "Wait, does my friend have a sip of tea, or a sandwich right now?"

Being in this state of kamocha, of loving your neighbor as yourself, is unbelievably impossible. As Rav Ashlag says about being in this state, “I have to always stand and watch, to fulfill first before I can take a bite. I have to make sure that everybody I know not just has the potential to have a bite, but that they have a bite right now if they're hungry.” Before we’re about to have any enjoyment, before we’re about to take anything in, we have to make sure that everybody we care for also has the same thing right then also.

The big mistake we all make is in thinking that "love your neighbor as yourself" means you have to love others and share with others. But no, that’s not it; it doesn't say you should love others, or you should share with others. It says you have to love others and take care of others as much as you would yourself. And it's so important that we understand our failure in this regard, even those of us who are spiritual, sharing, and caring. We fool ourselves by thinking we are in the ballpark of doing this work, of loving others as we love ourselves, because all day we are sharing, but that means nothing. Why? Because kamocha means that when I desire something for myself, I say I am not giving this to myself, I am giving it to somebody else.

Rav Ashlag goes even further and says the truth is that when it says you've got to love others as yourself, it's actually more than that; you have to care for them more than you care for yourself. Without going into too much detail, there is a teaching of the kabbalists which says if a person has a servant, he has to take care of him to such a degree that if he only has one pillow, he has to give it to the servant and not take it for himself. Therefore, when it says love your neighbor or your friend as yourself, it is comparing the feeling of your needs to the feeling of the other’s needs in the same regard as it did concerning the servant. You have to make sure that their needs are filled before yours.

If we have only one pillow, it means we have to give them the pillow; we cannot take it for ourselves and say, "Unfortunately, I can't share today because I don't have anything extra to share." If we have a chair and the other person doesn't have a chair, then if we sit in the chair and don't give it to our friend, we are going against the single most important commandment and teaching, to love your neighbor as yourself. Which means, again, that not only do you have to take care of everybody’s needs before your own, but you also have to make sure that if there is only one possibility of fulfilling either your need or somebody else’s need, you fulfill theirs first.

The statement "love your neighbor as yourself" commands that we take everything we have and give it to everybody else until they are all fulfilled, and then, if there is some leftover, we can take it for ourselves. Rav Ashlag asks us to think if it's even possible to ever accomplish this state. We lie to ourselves and fool ourselves all the time. If you ask any of us if we are a spiritual or sharing person, we would say yes, and of course know that there is a lot more that we need to be sharing, but the question we have to ask ourselves, as Rav Ashlag points out, is: am I living and caring for others before I am caring for myself?

Rav Ashlag, Rabbi Akiva, and the portion Kedoshim make clear that the purpose of everything is to move towards that state of kamocha, to love others before we love ourselves, to care for others before we take care of ourselves. If we have a chair, if we have a pillow, we give it to someone else before we take it for ourselves. When we do this, we are putting ourselves in an uncomfortable state in order to be able to take care of somebody else's physical needs. And the same is true for emotional and spiritual needs. “Love others as you do yourself” is not an exaggeration. What it says is exact. In some way we need to come to that state.

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