Question: What is the meaning of “Ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha,” mandating us to “love your fellow as yourself?” Where does this concept originate?
Answer: Your question is one of the most basic to Judaism. Indeed, the verse in Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:18) that contains this commandment starts with the injunction, “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people.” We are not only told not to take revenge, i.e., not to retaliate in deed for the bad that was done to us, but we are admonished not to bear a grudge, whether expressed in words or as thoughts in the heart, even as we are engaged in doing good. The verse then continues with the phrase quoted above, “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” and concludes with the words, “Ani Hashem – I am the L-rd.”
Thus, we see that the Torah itself places the concept of love of one’s fellow man on par with the fear of Hashem. Rashi (ibid.) cites Rabbi Akiva’s comment: Amar Rabbi Akiva, Zeh kelal gadol baTorah. Rabbi Akiva says that this, loving your fellow as yourself, is a fundamental principle in the Torah.
This saying of Rabbi Akiva is also quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 9:4) as well as in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 24,7). The Midrash refers to Rabbi Akiva’s saying in connection with the creation of Adam, who was made in the image of G-d.
The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) relates the incident of a heathen who wished to convert. He first approached the great Shammai and said to him: “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai, considering such a manner of request improper, immediately rejected him.
Undeterred, the heathen then approached the great Hillel with the same request, and Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man: that is the entire Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” We have to learn from this principle and apply it to the entire Torah.
We infer from this episode that Hillel met with great success with this proselyte as well as other proselytes, especially in light of the complete text of the Gemara (ibid.) that praises Hillel’s infinite patience.
A related concept in the Talmud is the statement (Shavuot 39a), “Kol Yisrael areivin zeh bazeh – All Jews are guarantors one for another.” This statement is preceded by a debate concerning the seriousness of the sin of taking G-d’s name in vain, i.e., swearing falsely, which is weighed as equivalent to all the other transgressions in the Torah, and whether the person committing the sin is punished alone, or the whole world [of Israel] is punished along with him. The Gemara concludes that for any transgression – not only the taking of G-d’s name in vain – the sinner and all the other members of the nation of Israel are punished because Jews are responsible for one another: “Kol Yisrael areivin zeh bazeh.” They should therefore have done everything possible to prevent the wrongdoing.
Thus, we see that no man is an island unto himself but we are part of one entity. We must love each other just as we love our own limbs and organs, for we are indeed connected like the various limbs of one body. In retrospect, we realize that it was sinat chinam, unfounded hatred, that brought about the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem. The antidote, ahavat chinam, gratuitous love, or better yet, ahavat Yisrael, love of all of Israel, will deliver us from our long exile and prepare the arrival of Melech HaMashiach.
Yet after all, how can one individual actually love another as himself; it seems to be beyond normal understanding. As you see, there is much more to this discussion that, hopefully, we will return to it in the coming weeks.