Hidden in the middle of Kedoshim’s all star list of moral imperatives lies one of the Torah’s most quoted lines – “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva says that this is a great principal in the Torah. Hillel the Elder goes as far as to say that this principle is the entire Torah!
But how can God command us to feel something? Our actions we have control over, but our feelings? Additionally, it’s not immediately clear how to fulfill this mitzvah. Do we have to feel love for our neighbor at all times? Just once? Perhaps once a week? It seems unreasonable to think that we are transgressing if we do not love others at all times, but there is also no specified alternative. Furthermore, the sentence immediately prior to our famous quote says, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17). Does that mean God is commanding me to never experience the emotion of hate? How is it possible to uphold such a command?!
Hillel must have also struggled with this question of God’s command over our emotions. The gemara records him changing our quote from “love thy neighbor as thyself” to “that which is abhorrent to you, do not do onto others.” In so doing, Hillel interprets God’s will as a commandment over our actions, not over our feelings.
Looking closely at the text, we notice that both not hating in our heart and loving our neighbors are severely truncated quotes. In their entirety they read, “Do not hate you kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countryman. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19:17-18). There are four distinct actions mentioned in these conjoined sentences. If we read the pasukim as descriptive instead of prescriptive, we are led to understand that God is outlining a process. God is describing the steps that lead us to love our neighbors – the practice of not harboring hate in our hearts.
First, God tells us not to hate in our heart. We can experience the feeling of hate, but we are not allowed to let it enter into our heart. This is a command to not let it fester and reside within us. In order to do this, God directs us to offer rebuke. It is imperative to express ourselves by directly addressing those people for whom we feel hatred. Of course, this must be done in accordance with the proper rules of rebuke – giving it in a time and manner when it can be heard.
After having expressed ourselves to our neighbors, God’s next imperative is to let it go. Once we have been truly heard, it is forbidden to hold a grudge for what has happened. God demands that we forgive.
God is teaching us that if we can express ourselves and subsequently forgive, we will by definition be led to love. I bless us all that we truly take this process to heart – then we will surely “build a world of love” (Psalms 89:3).