By: Rabbi Dovid Markel
In the beginning of the Torah portion of Kedoshim we are given mitzvah to love our fellow Jew as we love ourselves. The verse tells us: “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am HaShem.” The Talmud teaches us that not only is this one of the 613 mitzvot, but more so, all the mitzvot rest upon it.
There are two places that our sages told us of the importance of this mitzvah.
First the great sage Hillel said it. The Talmud recounts a series of stories about Hillel’s tremendous patience. No matter the scenario or how exasperating the solicitor, Hillel always remained cool.
The Talmud tells of a non-Jew who came separately to Shammai and Hillel. He asked them to convert him to Judaism on condition that they teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot—in other words, to encapsulate the entire Torah in a single overarching principle.
He said to Shammai: “Convert me, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon Shammai chased him away with the builder’s cubit he was holding. However when he went to Hillel, Hillel answered, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the entire Torah—the rest is commentary; go learn the commentary.”
Hillel tells him that the axiom upon which all of Torah rests is the mitzvah of loving our neighbor and everything else is an extension of that.
In another place the Talmud discusses what the overriding principles that Torah are. The Jerusalem Talmud recounts that Rabbi Akiva made a similar statement as Hillel’s. Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of Torah.”
That this mitzvah is of utmost importance is self-understood. Many of the mitzvot rest on this principle. If we would love our fellow Jew, we would not steal, lie or murder etc. or do any number of transgressions.
However, Hillel’s statement is somewhat more problematic. Hillel did not say that to love our fellow is an important mitzvah. He said that it is the whole Torah and that everything else comes out of it. However, though loving our fellow Jew is the crux of all the mitzvot between man and man, how is it the essence of the mitzvot between man and G-d?
Though, on the one hand, this seems to be a question of semantics— that Hillel was using hyperbolic license, on the other hand, this cannot be. This is because for a conversion to be truly valid, it cannot be based on a false pretext. If Hillel’s statement was just an expression of poetic license, the conversion would be questionable at best and possibly void.
To answer this question, another more basic one needs to be asked. The verse said “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” However, how could this be truly possible!?! Do we really have the capacity to love another as we love ourselves, in a way of self-love?
Many commentators are bothered by this question. Some answer that the verse is using exaggeration to get the point across. They say that we cannot have an obligation to love our fellow Jew in our hearts, because a command does not apply to emotions and love is an emotion. Rather, the mitzvah applies to how we act. We must act toward our fellow Jew in a way of love.
Tanya explains that as long as we look at other Jews as physical entities it is impossible to truly love them as ourselves, because if the other is physical, then my needs always trump his needs. However, if the other Jew is a soul we are both one. What differentiates us is only the body. Spiritually we are one—unified on the deepest level.
This is the reason, explains the Tanya that loving our neighbor is the very essence of all Torah, including the mitzvot between man and G-d, because the purpose of Torah is to emphasize the importance to the soul over the body. It is specifically the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jew that expresses this most profoundly.