Rabbi Yisrael (Israel) Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of Chassidism, was orphaned from his father, Rabbi Eliezer, at the age of five. The last words spoken to him by his father before his passing were: "Yisrolik, fear nothing but G‑d alone. Love every single Jew, without exception, with the full depth of your heart and with the fire of your soul, no matter who he is or how he behaves."
His father's final words not only shaped the Baal Shem Tov's personal life, as is evident from the countless stories of the extents he went to help and uplift others, but indeed, served as the cornerstone in the revolutionary movement and philosophy he founded, known as Chassidism.
To "love your fellow as yourself" was not a new idea discovered in 1703. It's a verse in the Torah, part of our heritage for the past 3,300 years. And 1,600 years before the Baal Shem Tov was born, a Mishnaic sage stressed that this mitzvah is "a cardinal rule in the Torah."
The Baal Shem Tov's revolution was not in the discovery of this universal truth, but in the "depth of heart and fire of soul" that he revealed within this profound mitzvah, which changed the face of Judaism for all time to come.
Love Another as Yourself?!
To actually love someone else as you love yourself is the antithesis of human nature. In the words of one medieval Jewish thinker, "The human heart cannot take upon itself to love another with the same love as one has for oneself." This led many biblical commentators to interpret the verse not in the literal sense, but rather, that the mitzvah relates to practice more than emotion; instructing us to treat others favorably and seek the best for them in every way—as you would for yourself.
The above is true, the chassidic masters explain, only if one views another Jew as "someone else." But, in truth, "...they all have one father. It is on account of this common root in the One G‑d that all of Israel are called 'brothers'—in the full sense of the word; only the bodies are distinct from each other."
The above quote from Tanya, the fundamental text on chassidic thought, points to the fact that the Torah states regarding the Jews: "You are children of G‑d." Like children of one father, so does every Jewish soul come from one common source, G‑d Himself, and within their Source they constitutea singular entity. It is on account of this common root in the One G‑d that all of Israel are called "brothers—in the full sense of the word," literally, not figuratively.
Whom to Love
This approach changes not only the depth of the love we are capable of cultivating, but also the parameters of whom we can come to love as well.
If the premise of love is the common source that all souls share, and not the attraction to the unique qualities that we see in another, it follows then that this love can and must be applied to any person in possession of a soul. In the Baal Shem Tov's words: "One must have total self-sacrifice and dedication for love of one's fellow, even towards a Jew whom one has never seen."
The period in history into which the Baal Shem Tov was born was very bleak for the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Jewish community had been physically decimated by the Chmielnicki Cossacks in 1648-9, some estimate the Jewish deaths at their hands at approximately 100,000; and spiritually with the disappointment and despair left in the wake of the false messiah, Shabtai Zvi. To add insult to injury, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the Jews.
For the simple and unlearned Jews the situation was particularly difficult. Within Jewish communities, the scholars and affluent distanced themselves from the ignorant and illiterate, in some synagogues even segregating them to an adjacent room outside of the main sanctuary.
Recognizing their despair and broken spirits, the Baal Shem Tov made it his mission to revive these precious Jews. He would travel from village to village, gather the Jews in the markets and anywhere he could find them, and tell stories to inspire and uplift them. Although the Baal Shem Tov himself was a monumental Talmudic scholar and kabbalist, he sought to engage the simplest of people, and convey to them the message that their simple service of G‑d was as precious to G‑d as the Torah study of the scholarly and learned.
Love of G‑d
The laws of the Torah encompass both the relationship between man and G‑d (e.g., the laws of kosher and Shabbat) and the relationship between one man and another (e.g., the laws governing fair business practices). In traditional Jewish thought, the passion that drives the efforts in these two distinct areas, are the two dictates of the Torah: "Love the L‑rd, your G‑d" and "Love your fellow as yourself."
The Talmud tells a story of a gentile who approached the sage Hillel and declared his wish to convert to Judaism—but only if Hillel would teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot! Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is but commentary..." In other words, all of the Torah – both the areas described above – are but "commentary" to the mitzvah to love one's fellow.
The Talmudic commentaries grapple with this idea. While "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow" can easily be construed as the basis of the laws governing the relationship between man and his fellow man, how could this rule be the foundation upon which rest the precepts that are between man and G‑d?
In the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, however, love for another Jew and love for G‑d are not exclusive. To the contrary, the Maggid of Mezeritch, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov, related that "The Rebbe [Baal Shem Tov] would frequently remark that to love a fellow Jew is to love G‑d. For it is written, "You are children of G‑d"; when one loves the father, one loves his children..."
In other words, for one who truly seeks to love G‑d, it would be impossible not to love each and every one of His children. How could one love G‑d, if he does not love those who are most beloved to Him—His children?
(This idea, once again, stresses the imperative to love each Jew without distinction—for no Jew is less a child of G‑d than another.)
Furthermore, the Baal Shem Tov taught, just as G‑d's love is not reserved for the Jew's soul and spiritual concerns, but also extends to his body and material needs, so too our love towards "those who are loved by our Beloved" ought to be more than a spiritual exercise. The love must express itself in genuine concern for the material needs of another. So much so, said the Baal Shem Tov, that "a soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years, just in order to do a Jew a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one."