The Spectrum of Love

Friday, 13 May, 2016 - 8:10 am

The Spectrum of Love  

Which of the Torah’s commandments is the hardest to keep? Eating Kosher? Fasting on Yom Kippur? Observing the Shabbat?

Perhaps the most difficult Mitzvah is “love your fellow as yourself”[1]. Now, “love your fellow” is hard enough to fulfill, but the second clause, “as yourself”, seems impossible. After all, were we not born with an innate instinct to care first and foremost for ourselves? Isn't self love more powerful than any other love known to mankind?

Thankfully, there are at least two ways to understand the meaning of the commandment. We’ll call them the conventional interpretation and the exotic interpretation. 

There are many prominent commentators[2], who offer one version or another, of the conventional interpretation. The conventional interpretation acknowledges that to love someone else, and certainly to love a stranger, “as yourself”, is indeed an impossibility. They explain that the verse means that one must desire good things for a fellow person, just as one desires good things for oneself.

The Chassidim, unconventional as they are, love the exotic interpretation, which argues, that if one internalizes the essential message of Judaism, it is possible to love a fellow as one’s self.

What is at the heart of all the commandments, from eating Matzah, to giving charity, to Torah study to prayer?

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement: “the basis and root of the entire Torah is to raise and exalt the soul high above the body”[3]. If the Torah has one message, it is that the soul is the essence of the person and the body is but a garment. The Torah calls upon us, not to forget about our core while we are busy feeding the needs of our body. Throughout every day of the year, and every step of our life, the Torah reminds us who we are: we are our soul.

If one self defines as primarily a body, then he will be incapable of loving his fellow as himself, because he - his physical body - is indeed separate and distinct from his fellow. In that case, a person can only experience “love your fellow as yourself” in the conventional limited form, as in “you should want good things to happen to your friend just as you want good things for yourself”. If however, he understands the essence of Judaism, if he appreciates that he is his soul, if he identifies, not with his external, garment, but with his core, then he will be able to “love your fellow as yourself”, because at the core, at the soul level, all souls are indeed one.  

The Talmud[4] relates that, once a gentile came to Hillel and said that he wanted to convert to Judaism on the condition that Hillel teach him all of the Torah in the amount of time that he could stand on one foot. Hillel responded with the now famous idiom: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

The brilliance of Hillel’s response was that it captured the full spectrum of the Mitzvah of “Love your fellow as yourself”. On the one hand, here was a person with no exposure to Torah and its message, if Hillel would have said “love your fellow as yourself” the gentile would have rejected it as an impossibility. So instead, Hillel gave him the conventional interpretation, the one that is simple enough for anyone to understand: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. But Hillel did not stop there. Hillel continued to give him the formula that would eventually enable him to grasp the true message of the Torah and the true meaning of “love your fellow”. “This is the whole Torah” says Hillel, study and internalize the core message of the Torah and you will discover that, yes, indeed, you can and should “love your fellow as yourself”.

Because the core of the “you”, and the core of “your fellow” are united as one.   


[1] Leviticus 19:18.

[2] See for example, Nachmanides.

[3] Tanya Chapter 32. 

[4] Tractate Shabbat 31a. 

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