“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”
“Ve’ahvta Reacha Kamocha”
Leviticus 19:18 (English & Hebrew)
Most of us are familiar with the story in Matthew 22:34-40, where the expert in the law asked Jesus the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus answered his question by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (the Shema). He then added what most of us would have thought was a new twist to their thinking when he continued, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus seemed to be adding a New Testament requirement of love to the legalistic framework of the law. But, was this the case? Where did Jesus come up with his addition to the Shema, ”to love your neighbor as yourself”? Was this a new idea from our rabbi? What was Jesus really trying to say in answer to the expert’s question? Let’s take a closer look.
It is a surprise to find that Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself comes from Leviticus 19:18 in the Old Testament! To confuse matters further, when asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus gave two! How many great commandments were there, one or two? By looking at the Hebrew meaning of the words, ”and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and by situating them in their original Jewish context we will be able to better clarify what Jesus was really saying and draw attention to a vital point that Jesus was making in his reply. This point is not obvious to a western thinking person only reading the passage in English.
Ve’ahvta – As we learned in our recent study of Deuteronomy 6:5, this means, ”and you shall love”. In fact, this phrase only occurs three times in the Torah, two of them in Leviticus 19 (verse 18 and 34), and the other in Deuteronomy 6:5. This will become an important point later in the study. You can re-read our post on Shema – Part 2 for a more detailed explanation of ve’ahvata.
Reahka – “Your neighbor” – typically means companion, fellow, kinsman, or friend. But, from the Good Samaritan story, we know Jesus expanded the concept of neighbor far beyond kinsman or friend. You can read the post on “The Good Samaritan” for a more in depth look at who our neighbor really is.
Kamokha – “As / like yourself” – literally means, “like yourself”. To love your neighbor as you love yourself is obviously a worthwhile goal. However, this phrase can also read in a different way, “love your neighbor who is like or similar to yourself”. Supporting this interpretation, just a few lines later in Leviticus 19:34, this verse has exactly that sense. To paraphrase this verse, “Show love to foreigners because they are like yourselves – you also were once slaves in Egypt”. This idea of comparing ourselves to our neighbor makes sense when you re-read Leviticus 19:18; don’t seek revenge or bear a grudge, but love your neighbor who is like yourself. When you get angry with your neighbor, don’t forget that you are the same way. We are all flawed and sinful and we all suffer from the same problems. We are all in need of God’s mercy. This brings to mind the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”. This interpretation takes loving our neighbor to a deeper level and puts our love for the people around us in the proper perspective. We are all flawed and hurting, so try to have compassion and a good word for those around you.
When you examine Jesus’ answer from a Jewish historical perspective, another fascinating interpretation is revealed. The expert in the law was not asking Jesus which commandment was above all the others, but which one best summarized or encompassed all the others. Before and after the time of Jesus, the sages of Israel debated and attempted to formulate a condensed set of principles that would represent the whole Torah. What few verses best summed up the foundational principles that the whole Torah espoused? They debated and some chose Micah 6:8, others Habakkuk 2:4, among others. Jesus’ response to the experts questions was his brilliant answer to this summary principle that the rabbis had so long discussed. Jesus did it by employing a foundational method of teaching in Hebrew known as “gezara shava”, which means a comparison of equals. This method used scripture to interpret scripture. Two texts could be united to one another for mutual interpretation by a word or words that they had in common. To understand the meaning of a verse, you would look in the Torah and see where else that same key word or phrase was used and then use one to interpret the other. In Jesus’ answer, he connects (ve’ahvta) – and you shall love the Lord your God of Deuteronomy 6:5 with the (ve’ahvta) – and you shall love your neighbor as yourself of Leviticus 19:18. Leviticus 19:18 is not a secondary command, but is the equivalent of Deuteronomy 6:5 and each may be used to explain and understand what the other means. Jesus brilliantly links the two scriptures together, so that the two become one! The Shema is fulfilled by the doing of Leviticus 19:18, loving your neighbor as yourself!
Did they catch this brilliant interpretation? Listen to the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:14 as he states what he learned from his Rabbi Jesus. “The entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Paul got it! Doesn’t this also sound just like the golden rule of Matthew 7:12? “So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets”. Also, take the time to read Romans 13:8-10 which contains the same message. From the master teacher himself we now know that our command to love God with all our heart and soul and might is fulfilled in the act of loving your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is “just commentary”!