Saturday, October 30, 2010

Like a Good Neighbor...

Last Saturday at Beyond Om/Spiritual Practice, Rabbi London asked us to think about the meaning of this verse from Leviticus:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

According to Rabbi Akiba, this verse is the most important one in the entire Torah. Maimonides dubbed it the most important of the 613 mitzvot.

My study partner and I agreed that if our neighbor was a good person we could get behind the idea. But what if she was a bad egg? Harder, if not impossible. She recalled two characters from one of the “Goodbye Columbus,” stories by Philip Roth. A Jewish businessman buys all the merchandise of another businessman whose business is failing. Is he despicable for putting the limping business out of its misery? Or has he done what good businessmen do, which is make good business decisions even if it has a negative effect on someone else?

I’ve been thinking about this all week. It’s the measurement that trips me up. How much love is meant by “loving our neighbor?” We think of this “loving” as all encompassing, like the unconditional love we have for our children or (certain) family members. But the verse doesn’t say this exactly. We can always find something to love about a “neighbor,” can’t we? And something entirely different to love in another neighbor. Perhaps the idea here is that a little bit of love is enough.

I recently gave a client a break in the cost of my services because he asked for it. Because he could not afford to pay the full fee. Not long after this, someone from whom I sought services gave me a break (without my asking.)

Can two small acts of love satisfy the appeal to “love thy neighbor?” Perhaps it all doesn’t have to go to one place. Isn't love is meant to be spread around?


Larry Kaufman said...

As always I obsess over the translation, and the way it possibly distorts the meaning of the text. Neighbor suggests propinquity, which is not necessarily inherent in reyecha, more usually translated as your fellow (or, by those not driven by gender neutrality, your fellow man).

More important, though, is the command to love (the other) as yourself, since love is an emotion that cannot be turned off and on. (In the Ten Commandments, we are not told to love our parents, only to honor them.)

Your question, how much love -- especially towards the unlovable -- is answered if we read this as treating others as we would want to be treated.

So you did the right thing when you gave your client a break -- and were fortunate enough to encounter someone else who had been influenced by Lev. 19:18. The challenge is to remember the saying -- I don't know whose -- No good deed ever goes unpunished, and continue to do good deeds anyway.

Ellen Blum Barish said...

It does feel as if the good deed doing takes care of itself and I was fortunate to find a good deed doer when it came to services rendered.

But now you've got me thinking about these two commandments. Why "honor" our parents and not "love" them but "love" our neighbor (instead of honor?)

I know that "honor your parents" is one of the capital "C" commandments and the "love your neighbor" is not, but the verb choices here are notable.