A famous story in the Talmud concerns a person asking different rabbis to tell him the whole Torah while he stood "on one foot," meaning in a brief summary. Eventually he came to a great sage named Hillel, a descendant of King David and the leading rabbi of his generation. How would Hillel reply to this question? Can the vast Torah really be reduced to a single statement? "What you do not like, do not do to others," came Hillel's answer. "That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study."1

The idea that the entire Torah focuses around the theme of one's relationship with other people is quite striking. Very often the laws of the Torah are divided into two groups: those concerning the relationship of the person with G‑d, such as Shabbat observance and kosher, and those concerning one's relationship with other people, such as not to steal, or not to be a false witness in a legal case. Here, however, Hillel was saying, in effect, that the whole Torah revolves around the single principle of one's relationship with others.

In the Torah reading of Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20) we find this principle clearly expressed: "love your neighbor as yourself."2 It occurs among many commands about one's behavior towards other people, such as—in the very same verse—the demands not to bear a grudge and not to take revenge. However, it is clear that this is a teaching on a quite different level to the other commands.

We can understand that if a person properly keeps this law, he or she will obviously keep the commands such as not to steal, nor be a false witness, nor bear a grudge. All the laws concerning one's relationship with other people are included in this teaching "love your fellow." Hence Rabbi Akiva said about this command, "this is a great general principle in the Torah." It is a great general principle because it includes more or less half the Torah: all the laws between man and his fellow.

However, what about the laws between the person and G‑d? Hillel seems to go further than Rabbi Akiva. For Hillel, this command includes all Torah law. How can we understand that?

An answer given by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism, is that the intended effect of the entire Torah is to make us more sensitive to the soul, rather than just the body. The mitzvot (laws) between man and G‑d have the function of drawing G‑dliness into the material aspects of life. They help us break through the barrier of appearances and connect with the G‑dliness within.

This has a direct effect on our view of others. For in physical and material terms, people are divided. But as regards the soul, we are united together. The more that a person is sensitive to that unity, feeling a true love for others, the more he or she will be expressing the goal of the entire Torah. And conversely, the more that a person observes the Torah, in all its details, in a truly inward way, the closer they will come to a genuine love for others.

Hillel makes this point in another teaching, found in Ethics of the Fathers. He tells us to be like the disciples of Aaron, loving all those around us and drawing them close to the Torah.3 We can express our love for another person through caring for them in physical terms. Yet we can also express our love by caring for them spiritually, helping him or her come closer to the Torah. Each of us has this power of love, with the power to give to others, both materially and spiritually. Through this love we will trigger the chain reaction leading to the goal of Creation: peace and love between man and his fellow, between nation and nation, between humanity and G‑d.4