Love Is All You Need
In this week’s Torah portion we have one of the most well-known verses in all of Torah. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” has resonated throughout the world for thousands of years.
In illustrating this mitzvah, the Talmud relates the story of a gentile who came to the sage, Shammai requesting a quickie McConversion to Judaism. He asks to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Now it makes no difference how great of shape you might be in, or what amazing balance you might have, nobody can stand on one foot for that much time. And so Shammai, having little patience for the ridiculous and somewhat disrespectful request, chased him out of the study hall in disgust.
Undaunted, the fellow then proceeded to visit Shammai’s colleague, Hillel with the same request. But Hillel didn’t throw him out. Instead he instructed him, “Whatever is hateful and distasteful to you, do not do to another. This is the entire Torah. Now go study for the rest is commentary.”
It seems somewhat bold of Hillel to claim to summarize the entire Torah in one sentence. And even if he could, what is it about this particular principle that defines all of Judaism? Wouldn’t either, “I am the Lord your God…” the first of the Ten Commandments, or perhaps “Shema Yisrael…” the notion of One God, been a more logical place to start? From a purely philosophical perspective it would seem the case. But Hillel doesn’t go with these.
What Hillel came up with was quite brilliant in fact and it takes a genius to be able to distill something as broad and complex as our Torah into its simplest and most basic component. People who are really great in wisdom do not give long and confusing answers but are able to pinpoint the exact truth and bottom-line of any matter in a very clear and concise fashion. He was teaching the most essential element of Judaism’s view of life before one can even begin to understand the myriad of responsibilities and mitzvot that are part and parcel of being a Jew.
Hillel told him that all of Judaism depends on the ability to view another person as real as one views one self. Understanding God’s Torah cannot begin without the realization that the person next to me is just as authentic and valid as me. That another person travelling through life has the self-same experiences of love, pain, hurt, joy, disappointment, frustration and satisfaction from the ups and downs and curveballs in life that I experience so intensely and deeply.
As simple as this may sound, the fact of the matter is that it is a lifelong and difficult pursuit that demands much effort to perform day in and day out. This rule of life finds its roots at the very beginning of Creation going all the way back to Adam and Eve. After God created Adam and declared that, “It is not good for Man to be alone”, the Torah describes how God made a helpmate for him. But before God put Adam into a deep sleep to create Eve from his side (or rib), He brought the animals to Adam for him to name. Only after this zoo-naming exercise did God finally provide Adam with his wife.
Why the interruption? Why have Adam name the entire animal kingdom before he met Eve? Why? Because a prerequisite to the very first relationship in history – which is the prototype for all future relationships – was the need for Adam to be able to practice and master the ability to relate to something outside of himself. He needed to realize that he was not the center of the universe, for if he thought he was, his relationship with his soon-to-be wife would be doomed. Adam needed training in relating to something – anything, even an animal – other than himself before he would be ready to begin a serious relationship with another.
And isn’t that true for all of us? We cannot begin to have a meaningful relationship with another if all we do is focus exclusively on ourselves. While this may seem obvious, too often people cannot adjust to their new reality of putting another on equal or even higher footing than themselves. It isn’t always so easy for a person to make the necessary and continuous effort to exercise heart and mind to look beyond oneself and see others as genuine as they are with similar needs, fears, cares, goals and everyday concerns.
Indeed, the vastly different and dramatic approach of Hillel as opposed to Shammai to this fellow expressed the very lesson Hillel was imparting. While Shammai could not fathom dealing with such an absurdity, nor get into the head-space of this seemingly flippant bloke, Hillel had the sensitivity to recognize the questioner’s honest desire to understand. Hillel was able to step out of his own world-view and into the questioner’s shoes to understand the core of his query and of the man making it. In essence Hillel was the embodiment of the very idea he was imparting.
Yes it is much easier to adopt Shammai’s approach and just write someone off and rid them of our lives. It takes a lot more work and effort to follow the path of Hillel and try to climb into the soul of another to figure out what makes them tick and what they really want.
All of the Torah’s instructions for living rest on the ability to treat someone else as seriously as you would want another to treat you. On, “Whatever is hateful and distasteful to you, do not do to another.” To see another as a full human being created in God’s image just as you know with certainty that to be the case about yourself.
Once this becomes clear, the rest of the Torah can fall into place. Now go study for the rest is commentary.
Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain…
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story