“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
(Leviticus 19:18)

Rabbi Akiva says, ‘This is a great principle of the Torah’.” —Rashi

Biblical commentaries struggle to understand the wording “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Man is egocentric by nature– and is preoccupied with his own existence. Each person is an entity to himself, with his own drives, goals, and nature. How is it possible to deny one’s own identity to the extent that a separate entity assumes equal importance—to love him as yourself? Furthermore, the commitment to help another, to give of one’s time and energy, demands an enormous amount of self-sacrifice.

It is not easy to tear oneself away from personal pursuits or to break out of the insulated cocoon of one’s own interests. Even more so, the time devoted to others could be used in bettering one’s own position, be it financially, socially, etc. Even in more refined pursuits, a person is involved with his own self. The study of Torah is never-ending, the obligation to raise one’s own spiritual level is unlimited. The time given to help a fellow Jew could easily be devoted to one’s own spiritual growth. Moreover, true involvement with another’s demands much more than the mere sharing of time or knowledge, but an investment of a part of oneself. True devotion to a fellow Jew means his joy is your joy, his anguish your anguish, and the travails of his soul are your travails. It is this devotion that is demanded when the Torah commands, “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” How is it possible to reach such an utterly selfless level?

The Torah also commands one to love every other person “as yourself.” How is it possible for G‑d to command an emotion? If we were asked to show respect to one another, or to be kind to one another, that would be easily understood and actuated. But to forcibly generate an emotion for another is something much more difficult. There are some people we like and some people we don’t like. How does one love unlikable people?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman produces a truly brilliant answer in Chapter 32 of his classic work Tanya. As we have touched on in previous chapters, he first explains that every Jew is composed of two distinct souls. The first is called the Nefesh HaBehamit, and the second the Nefesh Elokit. These two souls vie for possession of the thinking mind, and depending upon which one is in possession and to what extent, will determine if the person is a Tzaddik or a Rasha.

The Nefesh Elokit is a “G‑dly soul,” a part of G‑dliness. It therefore follows that, in source, all G‑dly souls are one on account of their common root in the one G‑d. In this sense they are true brothers, and only their bodies are distinct from each other. Since the Nefesh Elokit is the essence of the Jew, it follows that the command to love a fellow Jew is the directive to focus on the essence of another Jew and to see it as one with one’s own essence. To love your fellow as yourself may then be translated in its literal sense. The true path to love a fellow Jew is to learn to go beyond the physical, to look past the outer concealments, and focus on his true existence. Bodies are separate, but souls are one. The other’s soul is one with one’s own, for we all have one Father—how can we not love our brother? From this perspective all differences fall away and Jew is united with Jew.

Loving a fellow Jew from this perspective is an exercise in deflating one’s ego. It is only possible to reach such a level if one considers one’s body as secondary and one’s soul as primary.

A person who considers his body as primary and his soul as secondary can never attain true love of another, but only a love that is dependent on an external factor. This type of love is called, in the Ethics of the Fathers, a “dependent love.” If one’s love for another is dependent on something one may gain from the other, or because of their external character, then it is a dependent love. Only a love of the essence which transcends any dependent factor is unconditional. The very fact that one’s fellow Jew possesses a Nefesh Elokit is enough of a reason to love him. In source, both souls are united, and as they descend into this world they are given separate missions within separate bodies. However, collectively the sum total of all Nefesh Elokit represents the Shechinah in this world.

It therefore follows that when there is strife and baseless hatred among Jews, they are not focusing on their essence, and therefore the Shechinah is said to be in exile. When there is true love among Jews, the Shechinah is revealed. We may now understand why the Talmud states that the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred and Mashiach will come when we display unqualified love.

The Arizal writes that all the souls of Israel may be viewed as one large body. There are souls that are the “head” of the body and souls that are the “feet” of the body. Although each soul performs its individual purpose, just as each limb of the body has a specific task, in the final analysis, they are all part of the same body. It also follows that since all souls constitute one body, the performance of a Mitzvah by any one limb will be healthy for the entire body. The Jerusalem Talmud explains the Mitzvah to love a fellow Jew with a parable: If a man was to cut a piece of meat with a knife, and by mistake the knife cut his hand, would one imagine that one hand would hit the other to reprimand it? Each Jew must view the other as part of the same body. Living with a day to day awareness that all Jews are limbs of the same body is the true fulfillment of the Mitzvah.

The Baal Shem Tov stated that one must love a Jew even if one has never met him. This applies not only in a geographical sense but also in a spiritual sense. Even though this Jew may be distant spiritually, nevertheless, one should love him. One who is not Torah observant must be treated with love and kindness, for only with such a loving approach will he be drawn to Torah and Mitzvot. Today’s generation is that of the Tinok Shenishbah. This is a Talmudic term used to describe a “child who was abducted” from his parents and heritage from an early age. The vast majority of Jews today have not been raised in a Torah observant environment. Therefore, it is incorrect for an observant Jew to berate them for their nonobservance.

The correct approach should be—in the words of Tanya—to draw them with ropes of love—back to their heritage.

Such an approach, if done with no airs and graces and no vilification, will surely produce good results.

One must follow the dictum of Hillel: “Be one of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.” This directive is twofold. We have explained that a Jew openly connects with G‑d through Torah. Therefore the greatest act of Ahavat Yisrael (love of a fellow Jew) is when one brings another Jew close to Torah. In this way he can connect with G‑d through Torah. At the same time, Hillel warns that the creatures should be drawn near to the Torah, and not the opposite. Torah values should never be diluted to facilitate the non-observant.

The Baal Shem Tov said that love of a fellow Jew is the first portal that leads into the court of G‑d. This is based on the teaching from Zohar that “G‑d, Torah, and Israel are one.” It therefore follows that the love for G‑d, the love for Torah, and the love of a fellow Jew are one. Since the essence of G‑d, Torah, and Israel is one, and an essence is indivisible, therefore, when one grasps a part of the essence, one has the whole essence. For this reason, the love for a fellow Jew is an excellent barometer for one’s love of G‑d. If a person is lacking in Ahavat Yisrael, then he is lacking in Ahavat Hashem (love of G‑d), for one who loves the father should surely love the children.

The Baal Shem Tov also teaches that a soul may descend to this world and live for a lifetime just to do a fellow Jew a favor in the material world. If this is the case, how can we ignore our responsibilities to our fellow Jew in the spiritual realm? The Lubavitcher Rebbe once spoke about this teaching and asked a poignant question: How does one know which favor it is that is the soul’s mission? He replied that one doesn’t know, and therefore one should treat every favor as if that is the reason one’s soul came down to this world.