The famous, oft-quoted, verse from the Torah, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is found in this week’s portion. Yet, a brief internet search for the words, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” repeatedly yields the following result:
 Jesus said to him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt.22,vss 34 to 40 – Bible, King James Version)
In reality, verse “37” is the first verse of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5), misinterpreted, and verse “39“ is from this week’s portion (Leviticus 19:18):
יח) לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד
18) You shall not take revenge, and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself, I am Hashem.
A variation of this statement, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “what is hurtful to you, do not do to others,” is also quoted in “The Sermon on the Mount,” attributed to the same person.
The correct meaning of these words from Leviticus speaks of the unique relationship between one Jew and another, a Jew and Hashem, a Jew and himself, and a Jew and his ancestors. Unfortunately, this fundamental Jewish notion has been hijacked, copied, and confused by the gentiles, obscuring the meaning for many Jews who have not been fortunate to study the relevant Torah passage in detail.
The correct source for the understanding of these words is Hillel the Elder, as quoted in the Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a:
מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו גיירני על מנת שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו בא לפני הלל גייריה אמר לו דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור:
A gentile approached Shammai the Elder and asked him to convert the gentile to Judaism on the condition that Shammai teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him because the Torah is both lengthy and difficult, and this person was looking for shortcuts. He was clearly not realistic about the commitment necessary to be a proper Jew, and was thus not a serious prospect for conversion.
Hillel the Elder, on the other hand, did convert him. Hillel was impressed with his zeal and sincerity in having made the condition that he did. Hillel realized that this man understood that a proper religion would have one prevalent theme underlying all of its commandments. If this theme was reasonable, the religion built on that foundation would also reasonable. First, Hillel’s interlocutor wanted to hear Judaism’s central theme, and then, if he liked it, he would proceed to learn about the rest of the religion. Hillel taught him that the fundamental principal in our Torah: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah. The rest of it explains this concept. Go and learn it!”
The Chiddushei Ha-Rim, Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter (d. 1866), interestingly observes that the Torah actually says, “Love your fellow as yourself.” But Hillel didn’t tell him that he had to love his fellow; all he told him was not to hurt him, something far easier than loving him as yourself! Why did Hillel the Elder change the message?
The Chiddushei Ha-Rim explains that the maximum level of sensitivity and care for a another that a gentile can reach is not to hurt him or cause him pain. “Don’t do something hurtful to him, because just as you don’t enjoy being hurt, he doesn’t either.” The next level, however, to love someone else as you love yourself, is possible only with one Jew to another. The Torah is teaching us that, as Jews, we have an obligation to love our fellow Jew as we love ourselves.
If this saying was the product of a human mind, we would be inclined to relegate it to the realm of trite platitudes that sound good on paper but, in practice, mean nothing. How is it possible for a person to love a fellow human being as much as he loves himself? I am me, and he is him; my life is centered around taking care of my needs, and his life does the same for him. Based on this saying, there is nothing that I actually have to do.
This is verse, however, is in the Torah – instructions given to us by Hashem, our Creator! This is not a platitude; this is an ongoing action item to every one of us! This is serious business! We just have to figure out what it means and how to fulfill its directive. One thing that we know for sure, though, is that it is absolutely possible for us to reach such a level of love for a fellow Jew. Otherwise, Hashem would not have commanded it. Hashem only commands what He knows to be humanly possible. So, what does this mean, and what is the secret to achieving it?
A closer look at the verse as a whole provides some clues. “Do not take revenge or bear a grudge” precedes the instructions to love your fellow; and “I am Hashem” follows it. What’s the connection between taking revenge and loving your fellow? And why the need for Hashem to insert His “I am Hashem” card, specifically at this time?
The Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim (9:4) addresses this law – do not take revenge or harbor a grudge – and explains how a person can be expected to fulfil it.
כתיב לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמך. היך עבידא הוה מקטע קופד ומחת סכינא לידוי תחזור ותמחי לידיה
It says: Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge against a fellow Jew: How is a person expected to fulfill this? A butcher was cutting meat, and he cut his other hand. Would the injured hand now take revenge against the hand that cut it and cut it back?
This is the secret to not taking revenge against another Jew. We are one person, joined at the heart. Why would I hurt my other half? That’s me, not him!
The prophet Yechezkel said (34:31):
לא) וְאַתֵּן צֹאנִי צֹאן מַרְעִיתִי אָדָם אַתֶּם אֲנִי אֱלֹקֵיכֶם
31) And you are My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are Man, and I am your G-d.
The Talmud Yevamot (61a) derives from this passage that only the Jewish nation is called Odom (man) and that the world’s other nations are not called Odom.
קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל שנאמר ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם אתם קרויין אדם ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם
Similar to a human being, the Jewish nation comprises one unit. Just as the human body comprises trillions of cells of different types – heart cells, muscle cells, brain cells, etc. – but all have the same DNA and work tirelessly together to give life to the body, each Jewish person is like one cell in the Odom of the Jewish Nation, doing his part to keep the Jewish Nation alive and well.
This is the reason that Hashem concluded this verse with “I am Hashem.” What is it that makes us one person? The fact that we are Hashem’s nation. Our nation is only considered complete when each member is present.
The Torah was given to the Jewish people only after they melded into one nation at Mount Sinai, where we stood כאיש אחד בלב אחד – as one person with one heart. At that moment in our history, the Jewish nation stood unified in their commitment to fulfill Hashem’s will. Rather than describing their current state, the Torah was revealing to us that this was a prerequisite to receiving it. Without that fundamental unity, they would not have been worthy of it.
The Maharal (R. Yehudah Loeb of Prague, 1520-1609) explains that the Torah could not be given to an individual, which is why it was not given to any of the forefathers, or to the 12 tribes, or even to the 70 souls who went down to Egypt with Jacob. The Jewish nation needed to reach the critical “peoplehood” number of 600,000 before they could receive the Torah.
The word ישראל , Jewish nation’s name, can be understood as an acronym for:
יש ששים רבוא אותיות לתורה
This means: “There are 600,000 letters in a Sefer Torah.” The number 600,000 is the approximate number of men who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. That general number is used to refer to the entire Jewish nation with all its components. Every Jew has a connection to a letter in the Sefer Torah. This is why receiving the Torah on Sinai required that all 600,000 men be unified as one. If one person would not have been connected to all the others, his letter would be missing from the Torah, and the entire Torah would have been invalid.
Because each person had his own letter in the Torah, his connection to the Torah was through his letter. Since every letter occupies a different position in the Torah, there are 600,000 perspectives from which to understand the Torah. Hence, it is only through combining all the letters of the 600,000 individuals with their unique perceptions that the full understanding of the Torah can be realized. It is like a puzzle, where the picture is complete only when every piece is in its proper place. As each small piece is added, it contributes its essential fragment of the picture, and at the same time, completes the picture for all the other pieces.
This idea applies as well to performing mitzvot. In addition to perfecting ourselves through performing the mitzvot, we also add a component of completeness to the rest of the Jewish nation, because the Jewish nation is one body comprising 600,000 parts, each of which is essential to the whole.
This is the basis for the concept כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה – All Jews are guarantors for each other, which allows one Jew to recite the Kiddush or a blessing for another Jew, it being as if the second one has said it himself. Because my perfection is contingent on him performing his mitzvah, and, without his mitzvah, I will be deficient in my mitzvah, I am doing the mitzvah for myself.
This is the meaning of “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” Love your fellow Jew as yourself. Because you and your brother are just different parts of the same person, why would I proceed to wound my foot if stumbled and caused me to fall?
If we would absorb this concept to see another Jew as another part of us, like the left hand would view the right hand, it would be very easy to love our fellow Jew as ourselves, since, in reality, he is a part of me. Why would I hurt me?
This is why Hillel changed the lesson, and could not give this message to the gentile: It is impossible for a gentile to fulfill it. This concept applies only to Jews. אתם קרויים אדם ואין אומות העולם קרויים אדם – Only the Jewish people comprise one Odom, and we became this Odom on Mount Sinai.
רש”י על ויקרא פרק יט פסוק יח
ואהבת לרעך כמוך – (ת”כ) אר”ע זה כלל גדול בתורה
Rashi on this verse (19:18) cites the famous quote of Rabbi Akiva “This is a fundamental precept of the Torah.” What makes it so? The fact that it is the secret to fulfilling all of the mitzvot in the Torah that relate to our fellow Jew. When we would bear in mind that the Jewish nation is really one “Odom” and I am one cell of that “Odom” with the same DNA as all my fellow Jews working in harmony to keep the Jewish nation alive and well, it would be much easier to comply with all the laws about how to treat a fellow Jew.
Hillel the Elder told the convert, “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah. The rest of it is the explanation of this concept. Go and learn it!”
What did Hillel mean when he said “This is the entire Torah?” The entire Torah encompasses different types of relationships: that between man and Hashem, between man and his fellow man, and the relationship between man and himself. It is easy to understand how this principle covers laws of man and his fellow man, but what about the other laws? How is this the entire Torah?
In his commentary on the Hillel story, Rashi offers a novel interpretation of the word לרעך – your fellow.
דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד – ריעך וריע אביך אל תעזוב (משלי כז) זה הקדוש ברוך הוא, אל תעבור על דבריו שהרי עליך שנאוי שיעבור חבירך על דבריך
The verse (27:10) in Proverbs says, “Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend.” – this is a reference to Hashem. Hence, do not transgress Hashem’s commandments, just like you don’t like when others transgress your commands.
With this understanding of Hillel’s words, all the laws of the Torah are covered, including the ones pertaining to man’s relationship with Hashem. But what about man’s relationship with himself? How is that covered?
This lesson is probably the most important of all. When the Torah instructs us to love our fellow as we love ourselves, it is implicit that we must love ourselves. Not only that, loving oneself must precede one’s love for another, for if a person doesn’t love himself, how should he know how to love his fellow Jew?
How do we love ourselves? By trying to give ourselves the best of everything. It may be tricky to determine what is worthy of pursuit and what the best path truly is, but this is how one treats himself with love; by providing himself with what he perceives to be best for him.
Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (1480-1550) understands the commandment to love your fellow as yourself in the same way.
אהוב בעד רעך מה שהיית אוהב בעדך אם היית מגיע למקומו
Love for your friend what you would love for yourself, if you were in his situation.
Rabbi Akiva said that “Love your fellow as you love yourself” is a fundamental precept in the Torah. Ben Azai argues with Rabbi Akiva, claiming that there is an even greater fundamental precept in the Torah.
תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת נדרים פרק ט הלכה ד
בן עזאי אומר [בראשית ה א] זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה
Ben Azai says that the verse, “This is the account of Adam’s descendants” (Genesis 5:1) is yet a greater fundamental precept than that.
What fundamental precept could possibly be hidden in this verse? What is Ben Azai saying?
The Midrash says about this verse.
פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) בראשית פרשת בראשית פרק ה סימן א
א) זה ספר תולדות אדם. וכי ספר היה לו לאדם הראשון, מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאדם הראשון סיפור תולדות העתידות להבראות בכל דור ודור
“This is the account of Adam’s descendants” – Did Adam have a book? This teaches us that Hashem showed Adam his descendants in all future generations.
Why did Hashem show Adam his future generations? What was it to him? Adam began a process that would continue for the next 6,000 years, that the Jewish nation would be Hashem’s ambassadors to the world to show the world that Hashem exists. Since all humanity originated from Adam, Hashem showed him how this process would unfold throughout the millennia.
This teaches us that not only are all the Jews in our generation one great “Odom,” but that all the Jews from all previous generations are also part of this one great nation who have a collective mission throughout the 6,000 years of the world, to represent Hashem to the world. This “Odom” spans from Adam through the Forefathers, the 12 tribes, and all the way until today. Our responsibility to carry on our nation’s legacy is not just to the Jewish nation that exists today, it applies to our ancestors and all of the previous generations, who are counting on us to carry on the work that they started, as we are one with them. Ben Azai makes the “Odom” of the Jewish nation far greater than even Rabbi Akiva. In doing so, he takes the responsibility to love your fellow to a whole new level. We must now consider how our forefathers from previous generations would want us to act. Regarding them, it applies for us to say, just as we don’t like when others transgress our wishes, we should not transgress the wishes of our forefathers who would want us to be loyal to the Torah, as they were.