Love Your Neighbor – Really.

One of the most frequently recurring questions that I am asked is this: “Rabbi Lapin, I try to live my life as an upright and decent person and I try to make my decisions according to the Biblical code of good and evil but I often feel exploited. Sometimes relatives count on my good nature as they ask to stay at my home for lengthy visits while they tour nearby vacation areas. Other times co-workers ask for favors that go way beyond normal collegial cooperation. I am at my wit’s end because I know they view me as a God-fearing, kind and compassionate Christian. They assume that since I love them, I must agree to their requests. Sometimes, though, I find these excessive and I feel resentful. I don’t see how I can refuse without appearing unchristian but I don’t like feeling resentment. How can I reconcile my self-expectations of love with those of other people in my life?”

Let’s face it. Loving others isn’t always easy. Even loving one’s friends and relatives can sometimes be a bit demanding. This is especially true when things begin to resemble a bottomless pit. Imagine your neighbor borrowing your lawnmower in the name of your love for him, then demanding your hedge trimmer before he hosts a late night noisy party, always confident of your obligation to give him endless love? When is enough, enough?

I sympathize. The Bible does demand much from us. What are we to do when others latch onto our moral commitment to behave agreeably and exploit it? Well, today I want to do more than sympathize. I want to provide you with a solution to the dilemma created by your faith and dedication to God’s word.

Clearly the one specific Bible verse most causing this consternation is:

…and you shall love your friend as yourself, I am the Lord.
(Leviticus 19:18)

This verse appears problematic because a casual reading of it could imply that whenever I love myself enough to get me an ice cream, I need to get you one too. And you, and yes, you too! Does it mean that when you purchase a lovely new outfit, you should buy one for each of your friends and neighbors as well? Upon reflection, that does seem ridiculous, but if it is what the Scripture says, well…

Happily ancient Jewish wisdom comes to the rescue pointing out that the Hebrew text actually reflects that you must love your friend just as you would expect him to love you. No more and no less.

In other words, would I expect my friend or neighbor to buy me an ice cream whenever he gets one for himself? No, of course not. Would you expect your friend to get you a pretty new dress whenever she got one for herself? No, of course you wouldn’t. The message is clear; do not expect more love than you would deliver in the same circumstances.

Once we learn how to overcome the problem of limitless expectations on the part of those we love, learning how to love those among whom we live is very worthwhile. It can help us love others once we realize that loving someone else “as yourself” does not mean you ought to love him as much as you love yourself, but as much as you’d expect him to love you. Do things for other people in the name of your love for them, to the extent that you would expect them to do the same for you.

As soon as we apply these reasonable limitations on expectations, we can love fearlessly. However we must remember why we should indeed love our friends at all. The concluding phrase of Leviticus 19:18, “I am the Lord,” reminds us that we are all God’s children and as such, we are all brothers and sisters and because of that relationship, worthy of one another’s love.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you how much practical advice on interpersonal relationships I gained from Ruchi Koval’s book, Soul Construction: Shape Your Character Using 8 Steps from the Timeless Jewish Practice of Mussar. Her book is full of guidance in reframing thoughts in ways that make interacting and living with others easier and more joyful. We are so proud to have worked on and published this book and are delighted that it is now available in one additional format: as an audiobook.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Thought Tools post.
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Soul Construction: Audiobook

We are excited to announce a new way to enjoy Soul Construction by Ruchi Koval. Enjoy this book as a paperbackE-Book, and now as an Audiobook!

Discover more about Ruchi and Soul Construction and why we are thrilled to work with her and publish this new book HERE.

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