You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people.
Love your fellow as yourself: I am the L-rd. (Leviticus 19:18)
There is probably no one on Planet Earth who has not heard the phrase, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Although in rabbinic sources this mitzvah is more narrowly defined as ahavat yisrael, the imperative for Jews to love and feel responsible for one another, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag zt”l, the Ba’al HaSulam, explains that it is ultimately the task of the Jewish people to inculcate all of humanity with this idea. Furthermore, we learn from Rabbi Nissim Gaon that all mitzvot that are logically compelling are incumbent upon all people, Bnei Yisrael and Bnei Noach alike. Thus, the concept of ahavat yisrael is a microcosm of the mitzvah to love one’s neighbor in the humanity-wide sense.
In the gemara in Tractate Shabbat, we have the following story: a potential Roman convert came to the great sage Hillel and said to him, teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot”. Given the sheer size and depth of the entire Torah, Written and Oral, the proselyte’s request is odd. The Kli Yakar explains that this man was sincere in his desire to convert and by “one foot”, he meant one overarching principle that could serve as a basis for understanding the rest of the Torah.
Hillel’s patient answer to the man was, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” (Shabbat 31a). Hillel also explained, “the rest of the Torah is an explanation (of that commandment). Go and study it.” Rabbi Akiva, continuing this idea, stated, “this is the great principle of the Torah” (Sifra 2:12). In other words, of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, 612 of them are prioritized under this one (Ba’al HaSulam, Matan Torah, p. 17).
The Maharsha notes that Hillel’s answer was clearly a reference to the commandment to love’s one’s neighbor as oneself. Why, asks the Maharsha, did Hillel phrase it in the negative, instead of a direct, positively-worded translation, like Onkelos’s? There are positive (“dos”) and negative (“don’ts”) mitzvot in the Torah. Which category does, “love your neighbor as yourself” belong to? According to the Maharsha, we learn from Hillel’s rendering of the verse that “love your neighbor” is actually a negative commandment, just like the other mitzvoth in the verse, e.g. not taking revenge and not bearing a grudge. It is like a summary of all of the interpersonal “don’ts” in the Torah. But, how is an imperative to love others negative? According to the Sefer Yereim, “Love” means you don’t do or say to someone else something you know is hurtful. Don’t ask, “how do I know what bothers him? Am I a prophet?” That’s why the verse includes the word, “yourself”, i.e. learn from yourself, what you know in your heart.
Love cannot mean, says the Maharsha, an imperative to bestow an equal amount of goodness upon another; we know this from a different legal principle. In the gemara (BT Bava Metzia 62b) we learn that chayecha kodem—“your life comes first”. It is a mitzvah to prioritize your own life above that of another, may G-d protect us from ever having to make such a decision. Then again, aren’t there so many stories of tzaddikim—righteous people—who willingly gave their lives to save others when they had every right to think of their own survival needs?
Consider an idea from Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Holy Baal Shem Tov. He taught us that the way to understand this mitzvah of is through the verse Psalms 121:5, “G-d is the Shadow of your right hand”. A person’s shadow does whatever he does. When King David characterized G-d this way, he was telling us that G-d behaves with us the way we behave towards others. More technically speaking, G-d creates patterns of Divine Guidance in the universe that correspond to what we do.
The aim of loving one’s neighbor is to create a certain type of world, i.e. a world of peace, love and trust, and we achieve that by not doing to others what we don’t want done to us. Usually, we think of this in terms of the other person, what I should do for him or her. What the Baal Shem Tov is saying is that the central player in this mitzvah is you! Start with yourself and your preferences (that the Torah has defined for me), and reason outward towards the people around me—what I should NOT do to them?
What kind of world do you want to live in? You can create it by employing the physician’s first principle: primum nil nocere—first, do no harm. Or, as Dovid HaMelech said, “flee from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15). If we want to be healers of the world, we have start by stopping. For example, we all know that good health and clean water are much harder if not impossible to attain if we don’t stop smoking and dumping commercial waste into the oceans. In the same way, we can understand that not only is the principle of chayecha kodem not a contradiction to the mitzvah of loving your neighbor—it is the central mechanism, the prerequisite.
May we all be blessed to experience the warm and caring world that G-d wants us to bring about, and by taking responsibility for each other, merit that day when the knowledge of G-d will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
GOOD SHABBOS! SHABBAT SHALOM!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further.