INSIGHT

5767 - #26

LOVE THYSELF

In response to the command of V’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha, to love your neighbour as yourself,1 Malbim, Vayikra 19:18, Note 45 opens his comments by referring to the numerous commentators who state that the verse cannot mean, literally, that one is to love another as one loves oneself. It is simply not in the power of the human being to love another as one loves oneself; as such, one cannot be commanded to do something impossible. Torah Temima, Vayikra 19:18, Note 128 takes the challenge of the verse a step further. It is Rabbi Akiva himself who – while in regard to this verse, states that it is a klal gadol b'Torah, a great principle in the Torah,2   -- also states that one’s life has precedence over the life of another,3 not just by choice but by command.4 While Torah Temima also points out the impossibility of a command to actually love another as oneself, through this quote he further challenges any assertion of this incorrect, simple understanding of this verse by showing that there are clear halachic statements and principles that contradict such an assertion. One’s life and another’s life are not similar; one’s life has precedence;  Be it that mitzvot do not contradict human nature – rather direct it – or that the halachic systems actually demands it, there is clearly a Torah value in loving oneself. Yet, in presenting a comparison with love of another, this verse is clearly presenting a direction that we are to set in loving ourselves. .

             The verse clearly points to, at least, a minimum standard in regard to how one is to feel about oneself. If we are to compare our feelings for others with the feelings we are to have for ourselves, there is an implied direction that we are to have positive feelings about ourselves. We are being called upon to raise the feelings we have for others to the same level of feelings we have for ourselves. The better we feel about ourselves, the more that is demanded in regard to our feelings about others. While the verse is often used to challenge any idea of self-concern, it, in fact, demands self-concern. Our feelings or concern for others are not to be at the expense of our feelings or concern for ourselves. In fact, the verse seems to declare that the more one feels for oneself, the greater should be the feeling for others. This runs contrary to how most people look upon the moral continuum of social interaction. We often project a continuum stretching from an extreme point of selfishness to an extreme point of selflessness. The more we are concerned for ourselves, the less we are concerned for others – and vice versa. The verse declares this to be incorrect: the more we are concerned for ourselves, the more we are concerned for others. It is within this perspective that we can understand the moral value of concern for self. It is within this perspective that we can understand the morality inherent in loving ourselves.

             Avot 5:13 states that there are four types of individuals who give charity. There is the one who gives but wishes no one else to give; the one who wishes that others give but does not personally give; the one who gives and wishes others to give; and the one who does not give and wishes that no one else gives. Rabbeinu Yonah comments that the first individual reflects someone who: (a) wishes all the good and the praise for himself/herself and, (b) is also not really focusing on what truly needs to be accomplished. Rabbeinu Yonah, with these words, is reflecting upon two important elements of giving. One is the emotions inherent in the process of helping another. In giving to another, one also receives some return in the positive emotions associated with helping another. In denying the self through giving materially, one actually may just be giving the self another benefit of a different kind. With this recognition, the simplistic vision of a selfish-selfless continuum is challenged. The complexity of the human being and the human psyche means that such simple definitions really are problematic.

             Rabbeinu Yonah’s second point, though, presents the resolution to the moral challenge that is faced with the removal of the simplistic perceptions of selfish and selfless. In wishing others to also give, and share in the positive feelings of helping another, the issue moves from the personal to the collective. The moral call is that there is a need and there must be a response to this need. It is not about giving or receiving but about satisfying the need. Viewed in this way, oneself is also to be viewed in the same way. Regardless of whether the need is mine or the need is the other’s, the call upon me, as with everyone, is to meet the need. My need is equal to the other’s need because the focus is the need, not the emotions of giving and taking.

             Viewed in this manner, we can begin to understand why one must take care of oneself before the other. The issue is that there is a need; the question is whose need has priority. The halachic answer is that God has given one responsibility for self before the other. It is not about giving and taking for in the flow between individuals, the flow can be both ways. It is about taking care of the need of the collective as found in the needs of the individuals within the collective. In meeting this goal, our responsibility, though, is first to self.

             Malbim expresses this perception much more explicitly. Ultimately, he does not define giving to others as an act of selflessness; acts of selflessness are really not the ideal to which we are to aspire. The demand to care for others should arise from the recognition that we, all individuals, are really part of the organic collective. Our drive to help others should emerge from a drive to help ourselves; we are, though, called upon to recognize that we are all bonded together and that helping the other is helping oneself – and if done properly, vice versa. Love of self is to extend to love of others as we recognize the reality of this true connection of all of us. To achieve this, though, we must love ourselves.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 Vayikra 19:18. This is how the verse is generally translated although a technical analysis of the Hebrew, in line with the questions on the verse’s meaning referred to in the body of this Insight, does yield variant, more precise translations that reflect a truer meaning of the verse as will be discussed.

2 Sifra, Kedoshim 45.

3 T.B. Baba Metzia 62a. It, perhaps, should be noted that this principle extends beyond one’s actual physical life to include possessions and needs in general, albeit based on different verses. See, further, Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat c.264. Of course, this principle, if applied in the extreme, could lead to one never giving charity or performing an act of chesed on behalf of another, and so demands parameters in itself. This issue is clearly addressed in the halachic discussion on this matter.

4 To be honest, there is actually some halachic debate on whether one is permitted to place his/her life as secondary (or equal) to another. Most commentators, though, understand Rabbi Akiva’s statement as obligatory.

 

Nishma, 2007


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2006 NISHMA