|The Talmud 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.
There’s an obvious question: 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 Hillel 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 a person can possess is to care and be sensitive to others the way she is to herself. Maimonides actually codifies this concept into Jewish law and says,
We must praise others and care about their money just as we care about our ownmoney and our own dignity.
The challenge is that 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, 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 expected 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 that you would hate someone else doing to you. After a snowstorm you might not like or understand why you should leave your warm home to go outside and 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 the new, unknown, neighbor but you can’t steal, hit, or harm him either.
Hillel’s concept might sound similar to secular law, but it’s not. For example, you can’t blast music so loud that it bothers the neighbors even though there’s nothing morally wrong with listening to loud music. People can’t live together in neighborhoods and cities if they do things that might harm, bother, or offend other residents. Nevertheless, there’s a fundamental difference in this secular living arrangement and the ideal Hillel proposes. A country’s laws are a social contract, an agreement we make with our neighbors so that we can live together harmoniously but they’re not about care or concern. The Torah’s instructions are more than a social contract or pragmatic arrangement; they are instructions to leading the best possible life.
Hillel told the potential convert that if he wanted to become Jewish, he must first understand one basic principle and be willing to lead his life according to it. Once he accepted “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” then Hillel could teach him more—and that’s why Hillel 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’s the lofty idea that Jews are commanded to go one giant step further by loving others as we love ourselves. This Jewish concept is so exalted that it might sound impossible, and Hillel taught his new student that for most people the notion that I can love someone as much as I love myself is too daunting. Therefore, he first taught him “That which is hateful to you, do not do your fellow…” After the potential convert grasped the concept of not doing things to others that are hateful to you, he taught him the grander concept of loving someone as much as you love yourself. If the potential convert is overwhelmed by this idea, he must realize that when a person makes the commitment to become Jewish, he is placing himself under Divine influence and protection; to be 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 German’s 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. Granted, it might sound 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 share it with others. Good Shabbos (Sources: Talmud Shabbos 31a, Rambam Daios 6:3, Chidushei HaRim)Read More