This week’s parsha, Acharei-Kedoshim, focuses on a number of ordinances about sanctification and holiness. Buried among laws of purification is a central tenet of Judaism:
“ואהבת לרעך כמוך,” or “Love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
In a Talmudic story I learned in school, a man asks both the great sages Shamai and Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shamai grows angry and refuses, insulted. But Hillel accepts the challenge and tells the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary— [now] go study.” (Shabbat 31a) The idea of treating our fellow as ourselves is ingrained in Jewish thought.
Yet what’s always seemed particularly daunting to me is the specifics: How do we love our fellow as ourselves? How do we love ourselves in the first place? While the notion of treating our neighbor with kindness and empathy is heartwarming, the commandment lacks specific guidelines.
Clues about how to interpret the phrase “Love your fellow as yourself” lie in its context. In the same pasuk, G-d commands, “Do not take revenge on or bear a grudge against the members of your people.”
This idea connects to one key element of Shmita — the forgiveness of debt and unsettled grudges against others. The word “Shmita” itself means “release,” signifying the release of debts incurred during the previous six years. Shmita provides insight into the commandment to “love thy neighbor.” We can love others through release: release of our grudges, our instinct for revenge, and any negative emotions we might have harbored for others. In the same way, we release ourselves of obligations and debt and provide ourselves with clean slates. Shmita teaches us that forgiveness is crucial for loving others and ourselves.
Anna Dubey is a high school senior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City. She is a founding member and Director of Public Relations of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a movement that empowers youth to fight for environmental action. JYCM provides a platform for middle- and high-school students to make their voices heard and compel Jewish communities to address the existential threat of climate change. Currently, JYCM is building kvuztot (local chapters) all around the country. To get involved or start your own chapter, learn more here.
Shmita Friday is just one piece of a large conversation that has been ongoing for a long time! We’d love to hear what you think – post a comment below, join our facebook group, and start talking about shmita with your friends and family.