Lesson 1 for a Jewish Convert
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) mentions an incident involving a gentile who came before the sage Hillel and said,
Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot. Hillel told him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.
Chidushei HaRim asks, why did Hillel make up a new statement (That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow) rather than quote a famous verse (love your fellow as you love yourself) to make his point? Also, why did he emphasize the negative (“that which is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow”) but not the positive (“love your neighbor”)? One of the noblest traits to possess is being sensitive to others the way we are sensitive ourselves. Maimonides actually codifies (Hilchot Daiot 6:3) this in Jewish law and says,
We must praise others and care about their money just as we care about our own money and our own dignity.
Our basic nature is not to love anyone as much as we love ourselves. For example, when we lose our temper, we tell ourselves the other person deserved it or that we were having a bad day, but when someone loses his temper at us, we naturally get upset and malign him; we don’t necessarily justify his behavior as favorably as we do our own. The expectation seems unrealistic; can we really expect to be on the lofty level of loving someone as much as we love ourselves? Hillel carefully addressed this challenge in his reply to the potential convert by bringing down the expectation.
If you can’t love and care for someone as much as you do for yourself, at least you can refrain from doing things you would hate someone else doing to you. After a snowstorm, you might not feel like leaving your warm home and going outside to help the weak and elderly shovel their driveways, even though you would want someone to do it for you if you’d be in the same situation. However, you can understand that you shouldn’t push the freshly plowed snow from your driveway onto your neighbor’s. You might not want to lend your car to a new neighbor but you can’t steal, hit, or harm him either. If you hate it, says Hillel, don’t do it to someone else.
Hillel told the potential convert that if he wanted to become Jewish, he must first understand “that which is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow,” only then Hillel could teach him more (and that’s why he concluded, “this is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”)
Hillel gave the potential convert his first class in Judaism, but what would be the topic of the second class? It would be the lofty idea that we are meant to go one giant step further by loving others as we love ourselves. Although that might sound daunting and even impossible, Hillel would explain that when a person commits to becoming Jewish, he or she is now part of a nation that defies logic not only by our existence but more importantly by our actions. Jews lived in Babylon, Greece, and Rome yet none of these mighty nations had social welfare or any organized system of doing kindness for others. While the Germans were murdering Jews in Auschwitz, stories abound of Jews donating their own meager food rations and supplies to those in need. They didn’t merely survive; they lived on a higher plane. This type of life is what’s expected—and therefore attainable—to every member of G-d’s nation. Although it sounds impossible to love someone as much as you love yourself, but realize that if the Almighty gave it as a Mitzvah, it must be attainable. It might take a miracle for us to overcome our selfish nature, but the Almighty has no problem making miracles.
May we all merit to follow Hillel’s dictum and the path to which it leads. We’re born loving ourselves but as adults, we need to expand and share it with others.