Friday, April 23, 2010

Kedoshim: Love

Perhaps of all of the sayings in Kedoshim none is as well known as - "VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha." The Ramban raises a contradiction - how can it be that you should love your friend equally to yourself? There is a rule in the Gemora: "Chayecha Kodmin." The concept of one's own life taking precedence is illustrated with the scenario of one of two parties in the desert finding a canteen with enough water in it to keep one person alive. The one who has it uses it, and is not supposed to give it to his friend. (Bava Metziah 62a) How then can it be, the Ramban wonders, that we're instructed here to love a friend equally to our love for our self, when we know that the Torah supports a person's survival instinct and says that ultimately your own life comes first?

What is the real meaning of VeAhavta LeReacha KaMocha?"KaMocha" need not be defined as "in equal measure," but can mean "in a similar way." The Ramban takes this phrase as an overstatement for emphasis. The Ramban explains that what we're commanded here is to love our friends also, as we love ourselves. That desire that we have regarding ourselves, to live and be well, should carry over to others.

This idea is supported by the Rambam (Mada 6:3) who writes that we should speak in praise of our neighbors, be careful with the honor and the property of others - as we are with our own. While it is true that our lives come first, that need not inspire us to wish badly for anyone else. On the contrary, what is expected of us by G-d, as conveyed in this command, is to wish only good for others.

The one thing we aren't expected to do is to wish for someone else to have something instead of us. The Ramban notes that it doesn't say "et reacha", rather "lereacha." "LeReacha means towards your friend, but not exactly the same. We know that we are not expected to love the person of our neighbor as much as we love our own self. However, we are expected to love our fellow in all areas, as we love all good for ourselves. Sometimes we want good for our friend in certain areas, but not in others. Ideally, we are told in this pasuk, we should root for our friend in all matters: wealth, honor, wisdom, etc. This is very difficult; jealousy causes us to feel competitive and sometimes to not wish to see others advance. Yonatan, who we are told loved Dovid "as he loved his own soul", personifies this ideal.

Rabbi Akiva is the one who states in Bava Metziah that a person's own life takes precedence over the life of a friend. However, and this serves as a strong support for the Ramban, Rabbi Akiva is the one who famously declared that "VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha" is a "klal gadol" of the Torah. It seems that Rabbi Akivah was aware of the need for balance - looking out for yourself while not forgetting the rest of the world.We are told to love our friends as we love ourselves.

What is implied is the need to love ourselves. The fact that we want only the best for ourselves is assumed. But is it so? There seems to be an implicit command here to work on self love.May we be blessed to love ourselves and for that love to overflow to others.

Friday, April 16, 2010

First Things Last: Tazria - Published in Be'er Shavua

As high school runs its final laps for seniors they relish being the most experienced students in school. These young men and women have grown profoundly through four intense years of a dual curriculum and represent the end product of a yeshiva high school career. Still, it seems like seconds ago they were ninth graders and that position was not without it’s charm and innocence. In September, as college freshmen our seniors will again have the chance to see things from an original perspective, one that will grow and then again be gone in four years. It has ben my privilege to be part of the educational experience of this year's seniors. The following thoughts are dedicated to the Frisch graduating class of 2010.

According to Rashi the juxtaposition of the end of Shmini and the start of Tazria conveys the idea that just as in creation animals preceded people, so too in regard to laws of purity and impurity animals come first followed by people. There is a similar Rashi regarding Yaakov meeting Eisav and organizing his family (Vayishlach 33:2). This is the concept of acharon acharon chaviv. Antechambers precede grand ballrooms, this world precedes the next one (Avot 4:21) and Shabbos follows the week. (it’s not just a day of rest, but the best day of the week, created following all the other days). The best comes last.

On the other hand, first is best. First born gets honor and privilege. The first of the month (which we just celebrated) and the first of the year are days of prestige. The first aliyah of Torah reading is presented with honor to a Kohein .

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin addresses the issue of first versus last. He explains that when one thing precedes another and the first is a means and the second the end, then the last is clearly more important. Shabbat is more important than the days that precede it because the rest of the week is preparation for Shabbat. And this serves as a metaphor. In the words of Chazal: “He who works diligently before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat.” In a similar vein Rav Zevin cites the medrash on Breishit that tells us that when we live up to our potential mankind is told by G-d that everything was created for us and that's why we were created last.

On the other hand G-d reminds us when we stray, "even the gnat was created before you". While it may be true that last is best, as Rashi alludes to at the start of Shmini, this is only the case if what comes last elevates and transcends what came before it. But when last misses its spiritual calling, then it's first come first served, and whoever was physically created first is more esteemed, and last is last on the totem pole.

What really matters is how you use your position. Being first gives you a chance to thrive in a new place and in a fresh way. Being last allows you to build on what has come before. In our life we all are neither exclusively first nor last. In our lives we all have a first grade and a last, a first job and a last, a first love and a last. Each comes with its own advantage. On the one hand Chazal say that the education of a young person is comparable to writing on clean paper, which is better than writing on erased paper (Avot 4:25). Conversely, we are told that there is no one who is wiser than an experienced person (Mili De’Avot 10b).

May our high school seniors and all of us be blessed with the best elements of both being first and being last.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann