Dennis Praeger, the conservative commentator, recently made an interesting point about one the most important commandments. “Love your neighbor/fellow as yourself”. The Hebrew word, רעך, can be interpreted as either “fellow” or “neighbor”. The concept is that it refers to someone close to you.
According to Mr. Praeger, there is a specific reason why the commandment states, “neighbor”, and not just anyone or everyone. We are very close in proximity to our “fellows”, and as the saying “familiarity breeds contempt” shows us, many of our interactions become a recipe for problems, misunderstandings, miscommunications. In fact, it seems that judges in our court system will always give preference to hearing cases involving neighbors since there are the most volatile and have the most potential to build in enmity and become explosive.
It’s easy to love a stranger; you can smile at anyone and that’s the end of it. Let’s say you’re driving on the road and someone wants to cut in but forgot to put on their directional. Sure, it can be annoying as someone is invading your space, but you get over it pretty quickly. Unless you’re involved in a situation comedy, you’ll probably never see that person again.
The idea of loving your neighbor is very challenging. There you are going about your business, living in peace, and one day you start to hear barking. Well, not just barking, but yapping. It seems that your neighbor got a little, yappy dog that just won’t stop. So maybe you say something to them, maybe you call animal control or the police. Now your relationship with your “fellow”—whatever it may or may not have been before—is strained.
Now here it is your 50th birthday party—a very special milestone—and your wife or husband decides to throw you a party and invite all your friends. Your neighbor may have had a rough night the night before and didn’t get a lot of sleep, which they were looking to make up the very night you have your party that goes on into the wee hours of the morning. Except that either it doesn’t because the police are now at your door asking you to respect the curfew laws, and then you get a letter from your HOA telling you they’re fining you for carrying on after the 10 pm time limit.
It’s easy to understand why judges want to hear these cases and resolve them right away. It’s also easy to understand this commandment, but very hard to comply with it.
Consider that “fellow” doesn’t just refer to a “neighbor”. Perhaps your “fellow” is someone with whom you interact in a business setting or social group. Perhaps you’re part of a board the oversees a volunteer organization.
In these situations, there are usually groups of people who interact on a regular basis to manage. Let’s say your board has eight or nine members that meet monthly to decide how to best manage the organization. There are probably eight or nine opinions on how to do things. In fact, with Jews, there are probably sixteen or eighteen opinions.
It’s inevitable that people are going to disagree. Maybe there are personalities that tend to always disagree and have very divergent ways to get things done. Unfortunately, at some point, it is no longer about the point of view or opinion—it becomes about the person.
This is when enmity starts to rear its ugly head. Instead of conducting a civil procedure in which things get done via rules, there is arguing that becomes harsh, that becomes yelling and interrupting. People try to bully people. Things are said behind people’s back to try and discredit them. By the way, did we talk about the commandments that warn against talebearing and spreading false accusations? As the song goes, one thing leads to another.
And while you’re watching all this go on, or heaven forbid you’re one of the participants, the idea of loving your fellow doesn’t even enter the picture. “Love” is the last thing on anyone’s mind. And this is why “Love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the most prominent commandments we have and it’s why sages talk about it so much.
It’s easy to vilify people with whom you disagree. It’s hard to separate the opinion from the person. Look at our political landscape. Commentators have been saying with an election looming that this is the most divisive political landscape that our country has ever experienced. People don’t just debate or discuss anymore; in fact, they don’t even argue. They, you guessed it, scream and yell.
People are no longer people who have opinions or preferences; people ARE the opinions or the preferences. Someone asked awhile ago why there is antisemitism. This is why. We can’t just be people who see G-d differently. We can’t even be wrong while someone else is right. We don’t believe the way most others believe and that makes us, not just our religious perceptions, bad.
We have to get back to loving our neighbor. We have to learn, or re-learn, how to respect people. As Rambam said, this means that you want your fellow to enjoy the same successes and prosperity that you have. And respect.