…and you should love your neighbor as yourself… (Vayikra 19:18)
How much are we obligated to love our neighbor? Usually there is some
quantifiable standard that we can use to determine if a given Mitzvah is
fulfilled. How do we measure the amount of love to have succeeded in the
requirement to “Love your neighbor as your self”?
One of my boys, when he was in grade school, was being picked on daily. We
wanted badly to champion his cause but he refused to identify the
instigators. The administration and rebbe were consulted. Attempts were
made to squelch it. Nothing changed. The poor kid came home in tears every
day. We all know the remedy. Kids who pick on others only do it when they
sense that they are getting a reaction. There’s a tendency to want to tell
a child (or an adult) “Don’t let them bother you!” Unfortunately it rarely
works. If someone tells you not to think about pink elephants suddenly
they are dancing ever more in your head. What were we to do?
With help from heaven I stumbled upon a practical approach. At first I sat
with my boy and asked him what they had been saying about him that made
him feel so tortured. The words bled out slowly, “dumb”, “cookoo-
head”, “stinky” and stuff like that. I wrote down each on a piece of paper
and tried to logically dispute the veracity of their claims. I soon
realized though, that I was talking to the head when it was the heart that
hurt. Then in I put my money where their mouths were and I gave him three
dollars- one for each false utterance. I now had his undivided attention.
I asked him to please do me a favor and write down each insulting phrase
they say tomorrow and that I would pay him a dollar for every one. I gave
him a special pad of paper and a pen for the occasion.
Well, the next day he came home with a long face covered with sadness. I
was curious to see the paper. Empty! He reported that nobody teased me
today. It worked! Once they realized that not only was he not poised to be
hurt by their words but that he was happily awaiting them their thrill was
ended and so they ceased.
Having realized that it was finally over, I didn’t want to lose this
precious parental opportunity to crown the episode with a lasting lesson.
I felt it necessary to tell my son the following which he accepted with
unusual depth and sensitivity, “Now that you know what it feels like to be
picked on you should make certain not to do it to anybody else. If there
is a kid who is different or lonely or is for whatever odd reason a
candidate for being picked on you should make it your business to befriend
or defend him. With that in mind, son, maybe this whole mess will have
been worth while!”
The standard of love is openly stated in the verse, “Love your neighbor as
your-self”. The operative phrase is “as your-self”. So Hillel told the
would-be convert, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your
fellow!” (Shabbos 31A) If we healthfully process our inter-personal
encounters then they may become the natural guideposts and rulers to
measure out love to others. Not more is expected than that. What to do and
what not to do is being etched into our psyche over the course of a
lifetime. One clever Rabbi once said, “If someone doesn’t like their-self,
I don’t want them to love me!” However, even if one has been flooded with
much negativity, it can yet be converted into a reservoir of love.