V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha. Ani YHVH.
Love your fellow Jew as yourself. I am YHVH. (Leviticus 19:18)
These verses are the climax of what is commonly known as the Holiness Code, which is the centerpiece of the Book of Leviticus. If we are able to follow these commandments, then we might become a holy people, worthy of dwelling with the Divine Presence in our midst.
You probably noticed my unusual translation. Doesn’t V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha mean “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Why would I render it as “Love your fellow Jew as yourself”?
The reason is context: the previous verses explicitly refer to how you treat your kin, the members of your people. Re’echa does mean “your neighbor”, but in this case it is speaking of the person who is literally your neighbor. In ancient Israel, where clans and tribes lived together, this meant your kin.
In fact, later in this same chapter the Torah declares, “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as one of your own – you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34) With these two separate and complementary instructions the Torah makes explicit that we are to treat everyone in our midst lovingly, both our kin and the foreigner.
In modern times we have expanded this ancient Golden Rule such that we think of everyone in the human family as our “neighbor.” But today I am struck by the very specific command to treat other Jews well. That’s not easy! We are a famously contentious bunch. We are prone to hyper-criticism and intense judgment of one another. It is strange and true that we are often toughest on and most critical of our own family.