Have you ever found yourself feeling a distinct dislike for someone, not because of anything s/he did to you, but simply for who s/he is? Are their people in your life that you simply can't stand? Most of us have such feelings towards others, and for most the feelings bring on a sense of guilt. I mean these feelings seem to eptiomize 'sinat chinam', hatred for no cause, a sin that was so severe as to cause the destruction of the Temple and bring about our People's exile of near 2,000 years. Yet try as we might to use the force of our will to get over our disdain for others, we seem helpless in the face of feelings of enmity beyond our control.
This week lets explore our negative feelings towards others. Perhaps if we hold them up to scrutiny, shameful as they are to us, we can move from being prisoners of our unbidden feelings to masters of them, and find a way to overcome.
I charge us to this task now because our parsha is that of Kedoshim, a reading that over and over again calls on us to care for and extend ourselves to others. In the reading we find mitzvot of hesed, kindness, ranging from the law prohibiting us from taking revenge to the law which forbids us to hate, and from the injunction against slandererous talk to the commandment to leave portions of the field for the poor.The theme of the reading is summed up in one pithy yet compelling phrase "'v'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha'", "and you shall love your neighbor as your self."
Aye but there's the rub! I can understand my responsibility vis a vis others when the challenge involves a call to either act or desist from acting. But how can I be charged with the responsibility to love? Love is a feeling. Feelings resist mental commands. And you and I both know their are many people we would be grateful not to disdain, nevermind love!
And we are not the only ones who are troubled by the call to 'love'. The Rambam felt it impossible for a person to love others as much as s/he loves himself. Tosfot too found the imperative difficult to comprehend and so wrote that the law had a limitted context where it could be applied. Commentator after commentator took the passage and reframed it so that its charge could be made relevant.
Yet as I refelect on the passage and on the challenge I find so difficult, to feel loving towards those for whom I have an almost instinctual dislike, I have come to interpret the verse somewhat differently than the standard. The challenge of loving my neighbor as "myself" is not about the depth or intensity of the love. On that score the Rambam is right. I cannot love everyone to the degree I love myeslf. Rather here the Torah is teaching me a method to loving others. And to understand the Torah's call I first must understand what gets in the way of my love for others.
Let's reflect. Who are those we find we struggle to tolerate. Maybe we can't stand the boastful person, or the narcissist.Perhaps its someone who is lazy or who is ungrateful that causes our disdain. Perhaps its someone who is pushy or slovenly in dress. In all cases we have to wonder why is it that they are unacceptable to us. What does it matter to us how they dress, how they behave, that they are conceited or fail to say thank you. We may say, "They have issues or behaviors I simply find unacceptable". O'kay, but why hate them. They are not hurting you, or anyone else, certainly not directly. You dont approve of the behavior but why despise the person.Typically we hate those who threaten us, those of whom we are afraid. S/he is no threat! They engender no fear. Why hate him/her. Why is it so hard to simply let the other be and love them, or at least not hate them, with their shortcomings.
Most who study the human psyche say that the reason we hate others even when their behaviors have no real relevance to us is because we can't separate their behaviors from our own. And its our own behavior, now seen in them, that we find intolerable.
When we witness in the other person a way of conduct, that at some level we know we too share, a behavior in ourselves we find unacceptable yet present inside us, albiet repressed, we feel threatened. In the other we see reflected a behavior we have fought to repress in ourselves. Seeing the behavior feel threatening, almost as if it would be contagious and our carefully contained no-no would rear its head, a no-no we have striven mightally to push down.
Ah you say, "that sounds ridiculous, I hate in the other things I have totally overcome in myself." Yes you have overcome them. But they are not gone. They are only pushed into a deeper level of consciousness. They remain present but in hiding as it were. When we see another manifesting traits that once were ours, now hidden, we feel afraid and react to the fear by generating the reaction always generated by fear, hatred! We come to hate or at least disdain the other.
So what's the antidote? How can I get past the fear and the concomittant hatred?
It is to this that the Torah taught us, "Love your neighbor as your self". The key necessary to loving another is loving your self. If you love your self, all of who you are, with the parts of you that are not so wonderful, parts you are glad to have put in eclipse, then you will be able to love the other, any other, no matter his/her behaviors and not feel threatened by them. The work of loving another commences with loving who I am. The more fully I can love myself and yes, indeed master my darker side but not repress even the bad parts of me as unacceptable, the more I will be able to extend myself to loving others.
It is only when I can meet my shadow side, without fear, knowing it's there, accepting it's there, and trust myself to make the right choices that I love myself, and thereby, in loving myself, make loving the other possible.
So when we find ourselves feeling disdain or even hatred for another person we need to ask ourselves what is it about them we feel threatened by. When we know what it is we dislike so strongly in the other, we need to then ask ourselves "where is that feeling, attitude, or behavior in me". If I can't find it (as will likely be the case) we need to ask "where has it gone?" and then yes, invite the feeling up from the cellar of our psyche, so we can acknowledge it without fear.Only then, when we acknowledge our own character flaws without fear, will we be free to get past the prison of intolerance and hatred towards others.
Tough work indeed. But we were given a lifetime to get it done!