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The Torah’s greatest principle: Love your fellow as yourself

Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your fellow as yourself” is a great principle of the Torah. A similar principle is gleaned from the famous story of a proselyte who wished to convert to Judaism on condition that someone would teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel the Elder accepted his conversion and told him, “That which you hate, do not do to your friend [the negative picture of “love your fellow as yourself”]―that is all the Torah and all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”

Obviously, the entire Torah is a true, God-given Torah, but Hillel the Elder and Rabbi Akiva teach us that there is room to meditate on the principle that is the Torah’s “great principle”; the signpost that puts us on the right track.

The need for such guiding lights is most necessary when an outsider wishes to approach the infinite sea of Torah and needs an anchor to show him where to begin. This is why the Torah’s greatest principle is learnt from a proselyte who comes to convert. A true convert is not obliged to know the entire Torah before he converts, but he does need to know the principal foundations of Jewish faith; then he can accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvot in all sincerity. Rabbi Akiva, that great Torah sage, also arrived at the Torah as an “outsider”; he was a ba’al teshuvah (secular Jew who becomes observant) who only began his Torah study at the age of forty.

These two “outsiders,” the ba’al teshuvah and the convert, who begin their Torah study from scratch at an advanced age, are in need of a short-cut strategy and it is our privilege to learn the Torah’s great principle through their merit. Our generation too is a generation of teshuvah (repentance); so many Jews are distant from the Torah and so many wish to return to their source. This is why, more than ever, we need a path that allows us to approach the Torah after years and generations of detachment and begin from a generalization that incorporates all the details and explanations. One example of such an approach is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who chose twelve noteworthy verses for the children’s movement of Tzivos Hashem (“God’s army”) that are good even for adults to learn and repeat them by heart on a regular basis.

Obviously, identifying the Torah’s principle philosophies is important for everyone, not only for those who are not yet competent in Torah study. Even the greatest Torah scholars and tzadikim need to identify them too. Yet, they do not have the same need to search for it as the “outsiders” mentioned above. They study the entire Torah and observe all 613 mitzvot and they can relate naturally to the great principle as a simple premise. When the proselyte demands that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel reveals the great principle whose light he follows and now we too can benefit from his previously hidden premise, which has now become part of the public domain. Now we too, as distant as we may be, can grasp hold of this principle and allow it to help us progress to the entire Torah.

Although sometimes a great sage may find it difficult to formulate his fundamental axioms in simple terms, someone as humble as Hillel has a ready answer which is most suitable for even the most distant, lowly individual – while standing on one foot.

Five general verses

Since we are occupied with general principles, we can try to discover additional principles in the Torah. The generalization of “Love your fellow as yourself” is not just an important principle in Torah conventions and mitzvah observance, but a verse from the Torah, and since the Torah is composed of five different books, perhaps we can identify five such principles.

Let’s meditate for a moment on the book of Genesis and consider the most famous and most general verse in the book. Naturally, the verse that immediately comes to mind is the first verse, “In the beginning, Elokim [God] created the heavens and the earth.” This is the verse that begins everything and it exemplifies the entire book of Genesis―the book of creation and the beginning of mankind―in one verse.

Let’s continue to the book of Exodus: here we are drawn to the first verse of the Ten Commandments: “I am Havayah, your God, who has brought you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.” This is the fundamental tenet of our faith that ties the Giving of the Torah to the Exodus from Egypt, which is the main point in the story of the book of Exodus.

When we reach the book of Leviticus, the middle book of the Torah, Rabbi Akiva has already done the work for us: “Love your fellow as yourself” is the great principle of this book. The passage that we choose from the book of Numbers contains all three verses of the Priestly Blessing, which we have the custom to read every morning after the blessings over the Torah, meaning that it is representative of the entire Written Torah. Finally, in the book of Deuteronomy our choice is simple: “Hear o’ Israel, Havayah is our God, Havayah is one.” This verse is the quintessential proclamation of Jewish faith, a verse that we say twice every day and the words that were on the lips of countless Jews as they were put to death to sanctify God’s Name as Jews.

Before delving into the significance of these five verses, let’s order them into a familiar structure: the total number of words in these five verses is forty-nine and we are immediately reminded of the forty-nine days during which we count the Omer. Thus, we can make ourselves an “Omer counting table” in which each word corresponds to one day―from the first day, representing “In the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית) to the last day, representing “One” (אֶחָד).

This correspondence is particularly suitable because the inspiration for setting these verses as general verses is from Rabbi Akiva; a most prominent figure during the Counting of the Omer. It was during this period that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did not act respectfully towards one another (which is the reason why we observe certain mourning customs during this period). , Rabbi Akiva’s great principle: “Love your fellow as yourself,”―a verse which appears in Parashat Kedoshim, which is always read during the Omer period―is our principal service during the counting of the Omer; it comes as an antidote to rectify the sin of hatred and discord among Jews.

There are a number of noteworthy phenomena that can be gleaned from the table that we have just described, three of which we will mention here: a. the words “Love your fellow as yourself” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ) are located exactly in the center of the table at days 24, 25 and 26 of the Omer; the word “your fellow” (לְרֵעֲךָ) is the middle of the center! b. the word “Peace” (שָׁלוֹם) falls on 28th Iyar, the day on which we merited God’s miraculous heavenly assistance in returning to Jerusalem, the Holy City of Peace and to the Temple Mount (“The House of Peace”) forty-six years ago! c. the word “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל) in the verse of the Shema, falls on the first day of Sivan, the day when the entire Jewish people camped before Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, “as one man with one heart.”

Climbing up the ladder of the soul

Now we can meditate on the content of these five general verses, and we see that they follow a logical course on a single upward rise. In order to enrich our meditation, we will use a familiar Chassidic quintet of concepts that enumerates the five levels of our souls: “psyche,” “spirit,” “soul,” “living one,” “single one” (נֶפֶשׁ, רוּחַ, נְשָׁמָה, חַיָה, יְחִידָה).

  • The “psyche” (נֶפֶשׁ) is the basic level, the physical life-force that we experience in our body and in our instinctive actions, which is superficially reminiscent of an animal life-force.
  • The “spirit” (רוּחַ) expresses the world of emotions and manifests in our relationships with others, a level at which we can already identify the “advantage of man over animal.”
  • The “soul” (נְשָׁמָה) is the level that is expressed in our intellectual world. At the level of the “soul” we rise above the sensual-physical perspective and are able to think in abstract concepts (including, for example, the ability to derive a principle from a collection of details).
  • The “living one” (חַיָה) is on a higher plane that is completely beyond our conscious minds. This plane is referred to as, “surrounding light” (as opposed to the “psyche,” the “spirit” and the “soul,” which are “inner lights”) that is still close enough for us to sometimes become aware of its influence, as an “atmosphere” of sanctity that surrounds me and guides me to my path in life.
  • The “singular one” (יְחִידָה) is the source of the soul, the core point that eternally clings to its infinite source in God. The “singular one” is a “distant surrounding light,” that is revealed only at unique moments in life, such as moments of total self-sacrifice.

We can now meditate on the correspondence between our five verses and these five levels of the soul.

  • Genesis: “In the beginning, Elokim [God] created the heavens and the earth” should be my fundamental experience at the level of the psyche. God created the entire world, with mankind, the crowning glory of creation, included. God’s Essential Name, Havayah, does not yet appear here in this verse, only the Name Elokim (אֿלֹהִים), which depicts God as Creator and Director of nature [אֿלֹהִים has the same numerical value as “nature” (הַטֶבַע)]. At this basic level of the soul we only have a pale recognition that there is something above and beyond the natural world. This verse also indicates that my psyche is not perceived as something completely different from my body, as the psyche and the body correspond to the heavens and the earth mentioned in the verse, both created by the natural Divine power of Elokim. Just as the central theme of Genesis is the account of the Patriarchs’ lives while they are still perceived as a part of mankind in general before the Jewish people became a nation, so too my uniqueness as a Jew does not yet feature at the level of the psyche, which corresponds to the verse from Genesis.
  • Exodus: “I am Havayah, your God, who has brought you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.” This verse corresponds to the next highest level of “spirit” (רוּחַ), which rises above the basic life-force of the “psyche.” At this level we are conscious of the subjugation and constrictions of nature, while simultaneously being aware of the possibility of exodus and redemption from their constraints by a Divine power. This verse from the book of Exodus, which completely challenges the fundamental principles of nature, exposes us to the fact that the Jewish people are a different species altogether, “You have chosen us from all nations… and Your Great and Holy Name You have called upon us.” At the level of my psyche I experience myself as an individual who is separate and defined from all other people, but at this level the spirit dimension draws me towards social contact and a sense of “belonging.” In Nisan, the month of redemption, every individual Jew is aroused to sense his belonging to the Jewish people and thus begins to progress towards God, his God.
  • Leviticus: “Do not take vengeance nor bear a grudge for your people, and love your fellow as yourself, I am Havayah.” This verse brings us to the level of the soul (נְשָׁמָה). After leaving the straits of Egypt, the Jewish people become aware of their existence as an entity that has the ability to defy the world of nature and that stands apart from the great global village of the nations. Together as a people we weave a very special relationship guided by this greatest principle of all. True, at a certain level we care about the entire world and all of mankind―we love all of God’s creations―but our special love for our “fellow” Jew is on a completely different plane. This is a love that rises above all of the differences between you and me, through the deep understanding that our souls are united at their source, which is why we are commanded to love the other literally, “as yourself.”
  • Numbers: the verses of the Priestly Blessing bring us to the level of the “living one.” Having now risen to the hidden levels that surround the soul, we reveal that after all the rungs that we have climbed so far, there is an additional level at which we are so close to God that He chooses us to be His messengers “to bless the Jewish people with love.” This means not just standing before God as His beloved children, but identifying with Him so much so that we have the ability to represent Him and bring His blessing to the world. Although the power of blessing in practice is granted only to the kohanim (priests), nonetheless the kohanim themselves do this by the power of the entire Jewish people; we appoint them to be God’s messengers to bless us all. The entire Jewish people is a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
  • Deuteronomy: finally, we come to the verse, “Hear o’ Israel, Havayah is our God, Havayah is one.” This verse from Deuteronomy is the revelation of the highest level of the soul, the “singular one” (יְחִידָה). We constantly proclaim God’s unity, but only the “singular one” of our souls can truly perceive how God is truly singular and how much the entire world is annulled and included within His Divine unity. This is the message that we receive from the entire book of Deuteronomy, which prepares us to enter the Land of Israel, a message that tells us: now, as you are about to begin “normal life” as a people in its land, you must remember well that you did not come here just to be a “free nation in our land” but to be God’s people, who testify to His unity through daily self-sacrifice in our everyday lives, and this knowledge is your raison d’être.

To conclude, we will recall that the pivot point of all five verses and the greatest principle of all is “love your fellow as yourself”; the connection of all our Jewish souls together in love. This is the heart of our being from which the levels of the psyche and the spirit are derived and from which we soar upwards to the levels of the living one and the singular one. The ultimate Torah principle is never to forget your fellow Jew!

This article is based on our book Klal Gadol Batorah (in Hebrew) that is dedicated in its entirety to this meditation

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