“My Lord, do not pass from before Your servant.”
— Genesis 18:3
Our sages explain the above verse as Avraham addressing God Himself, asking Him to wait while Avraham welcomed his guests — the angels he saw passing by in the desert.
From this explanation, our sages teach us about the importance of caring for our fellow man: “Affording hospitality to guests comes before receiving God’s Presence.”
This principle is echoed in the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides’ Code of Law:
“This is the statute which Avraham instituted and the path of kindness which he practiced: to give food and drink to wayfarers and to accompany them. Indeed, affording hospitality to guests surpasses receiving God’s presence.”
The Talmud tells us a story of a potential convert who came before the great sage Shammai with a special request: “Convert me on the condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai rejected him and sent him on his way.
He then repeated the request to another sage, Hillel, who agreed to convert him with a strange condition. Hillel said to him simply, “That which you do not like done to yourself, do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary on this. Now go and learn it [the entire Torah].”
The great scholar Rabbi Akiva also tells us: You shall love your fellow as yourself; this is the fundamental principle of the Torah.
The obvious question is, how are Hillel and Rabbi Akiva able to say the above statements when we know that in truth that loving one’s fellow is only one of the many mitzvot? What is so important about this particular mitzvah that it is considered as “the entire Torah?” And if it’s so important, how does one fulfill it properly — what does it mean to truly love another?
“… and love your fellow as yourself; I am God.”
— Leviticus 19:19
How can the Torah demand that one love his fellow as much as one loves him or herself?
In Chapter 32 of the Book of Tanya (a fundamental text of Hassidic philosophy), Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains how this is possible, and offers us the tools to achieve this goal.
He explains the attitude that we must take toward body and soul — we must look at the body as a secondary, physical entity, which is not essentially holy in itself. Within that physical body lies the primary entity: a divine spark we refer to as a soul. And since the soul is then of primary importance — being Divine in origin — physical differences, material trappings and belongings become irrelevant. The number of degrees a person has or the size of his bank account is of little importance relative to the importance of the soul.
And when it comes to our souls, we are unable to measure which is truly greater. All souls are equal. We are all formed from the same source, as God tells Moses to relay to Pharaoh, “Israel is my first born son.” It is on account of this common root in the One God that all of Israel is referred to as one — and as explained, it is only the bodies that are distinct from one another. Therefore, no one has the right to claim that his or her soul is superior to their fellow’s.
This helps us to understand how it is feasible that one love his fellow as he loves himself. Self-love is innate; it is an inborn characteristic. When our focus shifts from looking at the material — the body — to concentrating on the spiritual — the soul — we are able to look at those around us not as “others” but as “brothers,” for we share the same Father. Love then becomes easy, as we actually love an extension of ourselves, our family.
This “soul-based” love is also more permanent than friendship, attraction or love, which is based on external factors that can change or fade with time. If we only love someone for their looks or their possessions, what happens when it changes? Do we trade them for a new friend or spouse?
This helps us to understand the intention of Hillel’s statement: “This is the entire Torah, the rest is but commentary,” for the purpose of the entire Torah is to elevate the soul high above the body — to raise soul matters above material matters and to tap into an appreciation of our Godly soul.
This in turn draws down the Shechina (Divine presence) amongst us. For the Shechina can only dwell among the Jewish people when there is peace, harmony, unity and friendship. The study of Torah teaches and encourages us to make peace, live in harmony, and have true love for one another by realizing we share the same soul source and, therefore, we are one.
And since “the deeds of the patriarchs are a sign to their descendants,” it is Avraham and Sarah’s behavior and their amazing hospitality and caring for their fellow man which has been embedded into our spiritual DNA and is now evidenced as an innate quality of kindness and caring for others. Some of us exhibit this love and kindness all the time, others of us are encouraged to learn how to express it. It is incumbent upon us to be sincerely non-judgmental when it comes to one’s financial or spiritual status, and to honor and respect everyone for who they are intrinsically, and not for what they appear to be outwardly.
We have the power and potential to do this. Words that come from the heart enter the heart. Deep down, instinctively, a person will always sense whether you have their true, best interests at heart.
May God bless all of us as one nation to love one another unconditionally, and in turn to share our love with the entire world as a true “light unto nations.” And when we achieve this lofty (and difficult) goal we will surely merit to enter an era of true peace among mankind — the era of Moshiach.