>‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) is such a popular commandment that it has become known as “The Golden Rule”, with versions of it existing across virtually every religious tradition. Hillel, when pressed by a student interested in converting to Judaism, reformulated it as ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn’ (Talmud Shabbat 31a). Both formulations contain the important concept of treating others in the way that you yourself want to be treated; however, the Biblical verse also contains an important instruction for how we should relate to ourselves. If we are instructed to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ then it requires us to not just love the other, but also to love ourselves.
The formulation of the commandment therefore possesses within it an important instruction for the way in which we relate to ourselves before we are able to be in relationship with others. We need to be secure in ourselves, positive about ourselves and ultimately love ourselves if we are going to also love others.
While this commandment may be challenging for the way it calls on us to relate to ourselves, it does not require us to stray too far from our comfort zone as it asks us to love our neighbour. In its most literal sense this might refer to the people we live alongside, and in a broader sense it may be members of a shared place or community, but it is likely to be people we share something in common with.
In contrast several verses later we are offered a slightly different commandment, which may be considered far more challenging. ‘And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself…’ (Leviticus 19:33-34). This may seem to be a somewhat harder commandment to follow as it challenges us not just to love ourselves, and not just to love those people who are like us, but it calls us on us to love the ‘other’, the person who is different. We don’t just need to avoid treating them in ways we would not want to be treated, but we need to actually love them.
The progression of Leviticus 19 allows us to engage first with love for ourselves and love for our neighbour, before then requiring us to expand our circle and love the stranger. And just in case there was any doubt about why we should be following this commandment the end of the verse states: ‘…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God’ (Leviticus 19:34). It is our experience of having been strangers which is given as the first reason for following this commandment. And just in case that was insufficient alongside it we are reminded that this instruction comes from Adonai.
And this is not the only time we are commanded to love in our Torah. We are also instructed: ‘Love Adonai your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). While this instruction appears in a different Book of the Torah, we may already be achieving this through the Leviticus instructions. As each one of us is created in the image of God, with the Divine spark within us, when we love our neighbour and the stranger we also love God. We are challenged to recognise and love the Divine spark in our neighbour and the stranger, but we must also recognise it in ourselves. When we truly love ourselves, we can then love our neighbour, the stranger and ultimately God.