The chassid Reb Hillel of Paritch was once struck with an immense longing to spend Shabbat with his Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch. But it was already late in the week, and it would be very difficult to make it to Lubavitch in time for Shabbat.

A young chassid offered to make the trip with Reb Hillel. As time was of the essence, he made one condition: Reb Hillel must agree not to take too much time with his prayers. Under the circumstances, Reb Hillel agreed.

That night they slept at a wayside inn. In the morning, the young fellow prayed and breakfasted and then looked in on Reb Hillel. He was still praying. After a while he checked again and saw the same. Hours went by, and still the elder chassid continued to pour out his heart before his Creator.

When Reb Hillel finally finished, his companion was quite upset: “I don’t understand. You wanted to spend Shabbat with the Rebbe, and you promised to hurry with your prayers. Now you’ve ruined all our chances of reaching Lubavitch on time!”

Reb Hillel answered: “Say you wished to journey to the Leipzig fair to purchase some rare merchandise, available nowhere else. But on the way, you met another merchant who offered you the very same wares at a good price. Only a fool would say: ‘But I must go to Leipzig!’ The purpose of the journey is not some town or another, but the sought-after merchandise.

“Why does one go to the Rebbe, if not to seek his counsel concerning the ‘service of the heart,’ if not to learn how to arouse oneself to the love and awe of G‑d in prayer? So if on the way to Lubavitch my praying goes well, should I dump the merchandise and run to Leipzig?”

Momentous Unity
One of the greatest moments of Jewish national unity was experienced at the foot of Mount Sinai. So aligned were the Jewish people at that time, in mind, heart and soul, that our Sages describe them as having been “like one man with one heart.”

As any observer of Jewish people and their conflict-riddled history will discern, this was no small feat.

“As their appearances are different, so too their opinions,” says an ancient teaching.1 “Two Jews, three opinions,” is the modern equivalent.

It’s the unique state of harmony that pervaded the Israelite camp in the days leading up to receiving the Torah that sheds light on a puzzling statement found in the Passover Haggadah.

In the lyrics to Dayenu, a song of thanks to G‑d, we sing of the many “unnecessary” benefits G‑d showered on us throughout the Exodus story. “It would have been enough” are the words of the poem’s main chorus.

One of the stanzas is particularly perplexing: “If G‑d would have brought us to the foot of Mount Sinai without giving us the Torah—it would have been enough!”

Is that not an exaggerated show of appreciation, contrary in fact to the classic teaching of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, “Our people are not a people but for the Torah,” and to the personalized variation declared by Rav Yosef of the Talmud:2 “If not for the Torah, I would be just another Yosef in the marketplace . . .”

Isn’t the Jewish nation defined and refined by its mission to bring G‑d’s word to the wider world? Without The Book, what makes our people unique?

Brotherly Love
To understand this unusual statement in the haggadah, we must first understand the purpose of the Torah and the nature of Jewish unity, and how the two intersect.

In his magnum opus, the Tanya,3 Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi takes a hard look at perhaps the most famous, but sadly misunderstood, of all Biblical commands:4 “Love your fellow like yourself.”

This universal principle shows up in many religious traditions, and paraphrased, makes up the bedrock principle or “golden rule” of any healthy society: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto yourself.”

However, the conventional meaning that is derived from this ancient teaching is guilty of oversimplification, or worse, being untrue to the words and intent of this divine command.

The verse doesn’t say “Behave towards your fellow as you do to yourself,” but “Love your fellow like yourself.” This command is among the few that require not only doing certain deeds, but feeling a specific emotion.

Put differently, one can live out one’s entire life without harming another—and thus qualify as a model citizen—and yet fail to have fulfilled the Biblical mandate to love one’s fellow.

But is it really possible to feel affection for someone you barely know, or know too well?

And, assuming we’re talking about the type of love that is motivated by the interests of others, rather than self-interest, how does one attain this pure love? How do human beings, who naturally view the world through selfish lenses, achieve the self-transcendence necessary to love others for their own sake?

There is one model of human relationships that operates naturally, without any strings attached—that of family. The moment a child is born, feelings of unconditional love and devotion begin to develop in the hearts of his or her family members.

One way of explaining this innate bond is that it results from the love people naturally feel for themselves, which then extends to include those who possess a part of them, as in a similar genetic composition.

Thus, the precise wording of the divine mandate to “love your fellow like yourself” clarifies not just the true intent of this mitzvah—to feel love, not just commit acts of love—but also directs us to the (only) way this mitzvah can be fulfilled: by viewing others as an extension of ourselves—as yourself.

According to Jewish mysticism, viewing others this way is based on fact, not fantasy or fiction. We each possess a core essence or soul that is rooted in the Creator, who is one. So, in reality, we all possess a common spiritual gene and hence a mystical family bond.

There’s one catch, however.

The only way to access the soul, and therefore our common source, is through making the material aspects of our lives secondary to the spiritual. Only then does our divine character, and by extension our unity, come to the fore.

And this is where the Torah and Jewish unity converge.

The stated aim of Torah is “to bring peace in the world”5—to unify and integrate, to bring divergent elements, individuals and peoples into harmonious concert.

This is achieved through the system of mitzvot. Every mitzvah is essentially an act that asserts spirit over matter, and brings both the performer and his tool of worship closer to their spiritual essence and the collective soul of existence.

To put it frankly then, the objective of G‑d’s commandments is to get over ourselves and nullify our ego. True avodat Hashem, or religious service, is about serving others, be it G‑d or our fellow. The word “sacred,” for example, is related to the word “sacrifice.”

And here we unlock the meaning of Hillel the Elder’s cryptic words:6 “This [the principle of loving your fellow like yourself] is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary.”

The mitzvot make up a program of self-abnegation, and thus every single mitzvah helps to reveal the soul that binds us to our fellow.

In this daring interpretation, all of Torah truly is a “commentary,” that is, a means of realizing Judaism’s most important tenet, ahavat Yisrael.

At the foot of Sinai, we experienced a unique moment of national unity, attained through collective self-transcendence. And it was without the help of the Torah and its program of self-refinement!

It was this rare G‑d-given opportunity, the ability to experience oneness without the mitzvot, which inspired, and explains, the haggadah’s words: “If G‑d would have brought us to the foot of Mount Sinai without giving us the Torah—it would have been enough!”

For in His kindness, on the day we reached Sinai, we were spiritualized and gifted free love and camaraderie: kind of like “buying merchandise” without “having to schlep all the way to Leipzig.”

What’s In It for Me?

There are times in life when we find that we have confused the means with the end. Do we work in order to live, or live in order to work? Do we see charity and prayer as an instrument for success, or view success as an instrument for charity and prayer?

To be sure, not always did we intend to view things the way we do; somewhere, somehow we lost our way, and our ability to focus and prioritize.

One road to confusion is the blind adherence to protocol or “the system,” set up in the first place only as a means to help us get somewhere.

It’s when the lines between journey and destination are blurred, when the process itself is confused with the product, that the means and end have begun their inevitable mix-up.

Reb Hillel thus taught, as does the haggadah, that firstly, when G‑d generously grants us an “easy pass” of sorts, we must seize, appreciate, and rejoice in the moment; and secondly, that we are called on to see this gratuitous opportunity from G‑d as a moment of clarity provided in order to help us distinguish means from end, process from product, and journey from destination.

Inspired by a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe given on Shabbat Bamidbar 5743 (1983).