The Torah famously instructs “you shall love your fellow as yourself, I am G-d” (Leviticus 19:18). The mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael, love of a fellow Jew is a maxim of Jewish living.
The mitzvah of loving one’s fellow Jew is an all-important principle of Judaism. The magnitude of this mitzvah resonates in Rabbi Akiva’s tenet “love your fellow as yourself is a great axiom of Torah” (Sifra, Vayikra 19). Summarizing the Torah, Hillel told a would-be convert, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your friend – all the rest [of the Torah] is commentary” (Shabbos 31a).
Every Jew is to relate to his brethren and to always be sensitive to all his fellow man’s needs. Indeed, more than just empathizing, he makes his brother’s concerns his own.
But why is it necessary to love and wholeheartedly identify with every individual member? How can one achieve this to “love your fellow as yourself”? And what has the end of the verse “I am G-d” got to do with this very interpersonal precept?
That the “commandments between man and his friend” and the “commandments between man and G-d” share parity is manifest in the similar-sized Two Tablets. They are on an equal footing. Neither is superior. Neither can be neglected and, in fact, one cannot exist without the other.
In our relationship with our fellow man, the underlining factor cannot be purely emotional feeling of “pity, compassion and humanity” per se but rather of emulating “divinity” – namely of observing the divine will and following in His footsteps. Which explains the stress placed in the epitome of interpersonal conduct – loving one’s neighbor – that there must be based upon the universal principle of “I am G-d”.
Interestingly, the mitzvah “You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart…” (Deuteronomy 6:5) has its parallel in the law “You shall love your fellow as yourself”. There is no contradiction here, as the two are interrelated.
Special because he is fashioned “in the form of G-d” (Genesis 1:27), every human being – without exception – is the spiritual handiwork of G-d and endowed with “a divine spark” – a soul. This is the essence of the individual’s identity, and for a Jew, the common characteristic he shares with his brethren.
No matter their differences, the ability to love one’s fellow is via relating to his soul. This explains a literal interpretation of the word to love one’s neighbor Komacha, “as yourself” in the sense that the love for another is, in truth, connecting with the very same component that lies within yourself – namely identifying the innate holiness of the soul. (In fact, Komacha has the identical numerical value as the Holy Name Elokim (86) – highlighting the divine spark within man). Through this he can successfully endeavor to attain a deep-rooted love for every member of the Jewish people as he “tunes into” their spiritual roots. Indeed, the Chasidic works teach that the pathway to “love of G-d” is exactly via ahavas “love of a fellow Jew”.
The Jewish people are considered “one” entity.
That “all Jews are held responsible for one another” (Shevuos 39a) means that each person acts as a surety for his fellow and to be entrusted with the capacity to exempt another in a religious act (called Arvas, guarantor). The mutual responsibility results from the common goal and mission shared by the chosen people. So too, it makes no sense whatsoever for one Jew to harm his fellow. Any harm is, in effect, self-inflicted.
Pulsating to the same heartbeat, the Jewish people share the common aspirations in their national identity as the nation which embraced the Torah at Sinai, when they stood, united “as one person with one heart” (Mechilta, Yisro).
An awareness of the G-dliness and potential greatness within one’s friend makes it incumbent upon a Jew to love and respect every member of his brethren. They are related to him and he is to them. Importantly, he cannot lose sight of how me and my neighbor are, at root, one and the same. Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene and Torah.org.