Love Thy Shrek as Thyself
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
The most famous golden rule of life is found in the second of this week's Torah readings. Love thy fellow as thyself (Leviticus 19:18), is not only famous, it also sounds like an injunction that is virtually impossible to fulfill. Can one ever hope to reach such an exalted level of saintliness to love anyone else as much as we love ourselves? Is the Torah not being naïve and utterly unrealistic?
Indeed, the classical commentaries grapple with this issue. Some suggest that we are being taught to act as if we love the other fellow. If we behave in such a way, the actual emotion may well follow in time.
The Chassidic classic Tanya (Chapter 32) teaches that if one is able to put physical considerations aside and focus on the spiritual, it may actually be within the realm of the possible to achieve true love of another. Indeed, our petty likes and dislikes are all based on physical preferences. We either approve or disapprove of the way others look, talk, dress, behave etc. But those are all material concerns. If we would only remember that these are but superficial, external, and of little consequence, we wouldn't take them at all seriously.
What matters most is the spiritual. The real person is not the body but the soul. The essence of every individual is not his nose but hisneshama. So what if he's ugly and his mother dresses him funny? His soul is pure and untainted. Who knows if the other fellow's soul is not greater, holier and more pristine than mine? No one can say his soul is better than the next person's.
By focusing on the inner identity of a person we can avoid getting irritated by their outer idiosyncrasies. We might think someone weird but would we ever accuse him or her of having a weird soul? So if we can rise above the superficial and concentrate on the spirit rather than the body, on the essence rather than on the external we do have a chance of observing this fundamental mitzvah in the literal sense.
How easy it is to fall into the trap of labeling people, of categorizing them and writing them off. Him? A meshuggener! Her? Rotten to the core! That family? They are impossible!
Many years ago I was trying to help a man organize a get (Jewish religious divorce) for his estranged and already civilly divorced wife. The problem was that she refused to cooperate. (Usually, the problem is the reverse.) So I engaged an attorney friend of mine to help with the case. The next day he called me to say it was all sorted out. I couldn't believe my ears. "How did you do it?" I asked incredulously. He answered with such genuine directness that I was completely taken aback. "I called her up and said, 'I believe you are not an ogre.' Immediately, I received a favorable response and the deal was done."
Nobody is really an ogre. (Even Shrek was a nice ogre.) If we can learn to give people the benefit of the doubt we might be surprised at how friendly and cooperative they really can be. Individuals with the most notorious reputations aren't half as bad as they are made out to be when we get to know them. Human monsters are rare indeed. The spark of humanity needs but to be aroused and the G‑dly soul is stirred and revealed.
So let's try and be more generous, a little more patient and forgiving. We may well be surprised at how lovable some people can be.