Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy . . . (Leviticus 19:2)
Rabbi Chiya taught: This section was spoken in the presence of a gathering of the whole community, because most of the essential principles of the Torah are included in it.
Rabbi Levi said: Because the Ten Commandments are included therein:
1) “I am the L‑rd your G‑d,” and here it is written, “I am the L‑rd your G‑d” (19:3, et al).
2) “You shall have no other gods before Me,” and here it is written, “Nor make for yourselves molten gods” (19:4).
3) “You shall not take the name of the L‑rd your G‑d in vain,” and here it is written, “And you shall not swear by My name falsely” (19:12).
4) “Remember the Sabbath day", and here it is written, “And keep My Sabbaths” (19:3).
5) “Honor your father and your mother,” and here it is written, “Every man shall fear his mother and his father” (19:3).
6) “You shall not murder,” and here it is written, “You shall not stand by the blood of your fellow” (19:16).
7) “You shall not commit adultery,” and here it is written, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (20:10).
8) “You shall not steal,” and here it is written, “You shall not steal, [nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another]” (19:11).
9) “You shall not bear false witness,” and here it is written, “You shall not go about as a talebearer” (19:16).
10) “You shalt not covet . . . anything that is your fellow’s,” and here it is written, “Love your fellow as yourself” (19:18).
The easiest thing is to hide from the world and its follies, seclude oneself in a room and be a holy hermit. What the Torah desires, however, is that a person should be part and parcel of “all the congregation of the children of Israel”—and be holy.
Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you.
(Talmud, Yevamot 20a)
The meaning of this is that since the Torah has warned against forbidden sexual relations and forbidden foods, while permitting relations with one’s wife and eating meat and wine, the lustful person can find a place to wallow in promiscuity with his wife or wives, and be of “the guzzlers of wine and the gluttons of meat,” and converse at will of all licentious things (since no prohibition against this is specified in the Torah). He can be a hedonist with the Torah’s permission. Therefore, after enumerating the things which it forbids entirely, the Torah says: “Be holy.” Constrain yourself also in that which is permitted.
(Rabbi Mordechai of Horodok)
And in Exodus 20:12 it says, “Honor your father and your mother.” For it is revealed and known to G‑d that a person adores his mother more than his father, and that he fears his father more than his mother. G‑d therefore set the honor of one’s father first, and the fear of one’s mother first, to emphasize that one must honor and fear them both equally.
(Talmud, Kiddushin 31a)
Although I have commanded you to fear your father, if he tells you to violate the Shabbat—or to transgress any other mitzvah—do not heed him; for “I am the L‑rd your G‑d”—both you and your father are obligated to honor Me.
At first they will be just “idols”; but if you turn to them, you will end up making them “gods.”
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: One who bears tales is a murderer, as it is written: “You shall not go about as a talebearer amongst your people; you shall not stand by your fellow’s blood”
(Masechet Derech Eretz 6:3)
(Talmud, Erachin 15a)
The speaker obviously commits a grave sin by speaking negatively of his fellow. The listener, too, is a partner to this evil. But why is the one who is spoken of affected by their deed? Are his negative traits worsened by the fact that they are spoken of?
Indeed they are. A person may possess an evil trait or tendency, but his quintessential goodness, intrinsic to every soul, strives to control it, conquer it, and ultimately eradicate its negative expressions and redirect it as a positive force. But when this evil is spoken of, it is made that much more manifest and real. By speaking negatively of the person’s trait or deed, the evil speakers are, in effect, defining it as such; with their words, they grant substance and validity to its negative potential.
But the same applies in the reverse: speaking favorably of another, accentuating his or her positive side, will aid him to realize himself in the manner that you have defined him.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The Psalmist compares slanderous talk to “sharp arrows of the warrior, coals of broom” (Psalms 120:4). All other weapons strike from close quarters, while the arrow strikes from a distance. So is it with slander: it is spoken in Rome, and kills in Syria. All other coals, when extinguished, are extinguished on the outside and the inside; but coals of broom are still burning on the inside when they are extinguished on the outside. So is it with words of slander: even after it seems that their effects have been put out, they continue to smolder within those who heard them. It once happened that a broom tree was set on fire, and it burned eighteen months—winter, summer and winter.
Evil talk is like an arrow. A person who unsheathes a sword can regret his intention and return it to its sheath. But the arrow cannot be retrieved.
To what may the tongue be compared? To a dog tied with an iron chain and locked in a room within a room within a room, yet when he barks the entire populace is terrified of him. Imagine if he were loose outside! So the tongue: it is secured behind the teeth and behind the lips, yet it does no end of damage. Imagine if it were outside!
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov once instructed several of his disciples to embark on a journey. The chassidic leader did not tell them where to go, nor did they ask; they allowed Divine Providence to direct their wagon where it might, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.
After traveling for several hours, they stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were pious Jews who insisted on the highest standards of kashrut; when they learned that their host planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to see the shochet (ritual slaughterer) of the house, interrogated him as to his knowledge and piety, and examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kashrut standard of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them.
As they spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. “Dear Jews,” it called out, “are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?”
The party of chassidim concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward Mezhibuzh. They now understood the purpose for which their rebbe had dispatched them on their journey that morning.
A man once came to see Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, and proceeded to portray himself as a villain of the worst sort. After describing at length his moral and spiritual deficiencies, he begged the Rebbe to help him overcome his evil character.
“Surely,” said the rebbe, “you know how grave is the sin of lashon hara, speaking ill of a human being. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does it say that it is permissible to speak lashon hara about oneself.”
From where do we know that if one sees his fellow drowning in a river, being dragged off by a wild animal or attacked by robbers, that one is obligated to save him? From the verse “You shall not stand by your fellow’s blood.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a)
If a person is wronged by another, he should not hate him and remain silent, as is said in regard to the wicked, “Absalom did not speak to Amnon, neither good nor evil, for Absalom hated Amnon” (II Samuel 13:22). Rather, it is a mitzvah for him to make this known to him, and say to him, “Why did you do this-and-this to me? Why did you offend me in this way?” as it is written: “Rebuke, rebuke your fellow.” And if that person expresses regret and asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive him . . .
One who sees that his fellow has sinned, or is following an improper path, has a mitzvah to bring him back to the proper path and to inform him that he sins by his bad actions, as it is written: “Rebuke, rebuke your fellow.”
When one rebukes one’s fellow, whether it is regarding matters between the two of them or regarding matters between that person and G‑d, he should rebuke him in private. He should speak to him gently and softly, and should tell him that he is doing this for his own good, so that he may merit the world to come.
If that person accepts [the rebuke], good; if not, he should rebuke him a second time and a third time. He should continue to rebuke him to the point that the sinner strikes him and says to him, “I refuse to listen.”
Whoever has the ability to rebuke and does not do so shares in the guilt for the sin, since he could have prevented it . . .
One who is wronged by his fellow but does not desire to rebuke him or speak to him about it at all because the offender is a very coarse person, or a disturbed person, but chooses instead to forgive him in his heart, bearing him no grudge nor rebuking him—this is the manner of the pious. The Torah’s objection [to remaining silent] is only when he harbors animosity.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Traits, ch. 6)
Our sages have said: “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” It therefore follows that if you seek to correct a failing of your fellow and are unsuccessful, the fault lies not with him but with yourself. Had you truly been sincere, your words would certainly have had an effect.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Why is the word “rebuke” repeated? Because first you must rebuke yourself.
(The Chassidic Masters)
Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, the image you perceive will also be flawless. But should you look upon your fellow man and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering—you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
On one occasion Rabbi Aharon of Belz was informed that one of the town’s residents had desecrated the Shabbat. He immediately ordered both the informer and the Shabbat violator to appear before him.
“I order you to donate two pounds of candles to the synagogue,” said Rabbi Aharon to the informer, “in order to atone for the fact that you spoke negatively of a fellow Jew.
“And you,” said the rebbe to the second man, “I fine one pound of candles, for being the cause of your fellow Jew speaking negatively of another Jew.”
Said Rabbi Il’a in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say what will be accepted, it is a mitzvah to refrain from saying things that will not be accepted.
Rabbi Abba said: Indeed, it is an obligation [to act thus], as it is written (Proverbs 9:8): “Do not rebuke a fool, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.”
(Talmud, Yevamot 65b)
What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? If a person said to his fellow, “Lend me your sickle,” and he replied “No,” and on the following day the second person comes to the first and says, “Lend me your axe,” and he replies: “I will not lend it to you, just as you would not lend me your sickle”—that is revenge.
And what is bearing a grudge? If one person says to his fellow, “Lend me your axe,” and he replies, “No,” and on the next day the second one asks, “Lend me your garment,” and the first answers: “Here it is. I am not like you, who would not lend me”—that is bearing a grudge.
(Talmud, Yoma 23a)
How does one avoid acting vengefully? One should think: If a person were cutting meat, and the knife cut his hand, would that hand cut the first hand in return?
(Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4)
Rabbi Akiva said: This is a cardinal principle of the Torah.
A gentile came before Shammai and said to him, “I wish to convert to Judaism, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measuring rod which was in his hand. When he came before Hillel, Hillel said to him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah; the rest is the commentary—go and learn it.”
(Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
Why did Hillel say that this is “the entire Torah”? Granted that it is the essence of all mitzvot governing our behavior “between man and man”; but the Torah also includes many mitzvot that are in the realm of “between man and G‑d.” In what way is the mitzvah to “love your fellow as yourself” the essence of mitzvot such as praying, or ceasing work on Shabbat?
The explanation can be found in the answer to another question: How is it possible to love another “as yourself”? Are not self and fellow two distinct entities, so that however closely they may be bound, the other will always be other, and never wholly like the self?
As physical beings, one’s self and one’s fellow are indeed two distinct entities. As spiritual beings, however, they are ultimately one, for all souls are of a single essence, united in their source in G‑d. As long as one regards the physical self as the true “I” and the soul as something this I “has,” one will never truly love the other “as oneself.” But if the soul is the “I” and the body but its tool and extension, one can come to recognize that “self” and “fellow” are but two expressions of a singular essence, so that all that one desires for oneself one desires equally for one’s fellow.
Otherwise stated, the endeavor to love one’s fellow as oneself is the endeavor to cultivate one’s own spiritual identity: to see the soul and spirit as the true and ultimate reality, and the body and the material as extraneous and subservient to it.
This is the entire Torah.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
A soul might descend to earth and live seventy or eighty years for the sole purpose of doing a favor for another—a spiritual favor, or even a material favor.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
Love of a fellow is the first gate leading into the palace of G‑d.
To love a fellow is to love G‑d. For “you are children unto the L‑rd your G‑d” (Deuteronomy 14:1); one who loves a father loves his children.
“Love your fellow as yourself” is an elaboration and elucidation upon “You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d” (Deuteronomy 6:5). When one loves one’s fellow one loves G‑d, for one’s fellow contains within himself a “part of G‑d above” (Job 31:2). By loving one’s fellow, the innermost part of him, one loves G‑d.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
The three loves—love of G‑d, love of Torah and love of one’s fellow—are one. One cannot differentiate between them, for they are of a single essence. And since they are of a single essence, each one embodies all three.
So if you see a person who has a love of G‑d but lacks a love of Torah and a love of his fellow, you must tell him that his love of G‑d is incomplete. And if you see a person who has only a love for his fellow, you must strive to bring him to a love of Torah and a love of G‑d—that his love toward his fellows should not only be expressed in providing bread for the hungry and water for the thirsty, but also to bring them close to Torah and to G‑d.
When we will have the three loves together, we will achieve the Redemption. For just as this last exile was caused by a lack of brotherly love, so shall the final and immediate Redemption be achieved by love for one’s fellow.
(From the words spoken by the Lubavitcher Rebbe immediately following his formal acceptance of the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch in 1951)
One must love the lowliest of men as much as the greatest Torah scholar.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
Rabbi Zusha was a living example of the maxim that “love covers up all iniquities” (Proverbs 10:12). What the ordinary observer would perceive as a glaring deficiency, or even an outright sin, would not “register” in his holy eyes and mind. Rabbi Zusha was simply incapable of seeing anything negative in a fellow Jew
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s ahavat Yisrael found expression in his incessant efforts as an advocate for the people of Israel. Unlike Rabbi Zusha, he was not blind to their misdeeds and failings; but he never failed to “judge every man to the side of merit” to find a justification, and even a positive aspect, in their behavior. (A typical story tells of how, upon noticing a wagon driver who was greasing his wheels while reciting his morning prayers, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lifted his eyes to Heaven and cried: “Master of the Universe! Behold the piety of Your children! Even as they go about their daily affairs, they do not cease to pray to You!”)
But the Baal Shem Tov’s love ran deeper yet. To him, ahavat Yisrael was not the refusal to see the deficiencies of a fellow, or even the endeavor to transform them into merits, but an unequivocal love regardless of their spiritual state. He loved the most iniquitous transgressor with the same boundless love with which he loved the greatest tzaddik; he loved them as G‑d loves them as a father loves his children, regardless of who and what they are.
I learned the meaning of love from two drunks whose conversation I once overheard.
The first drunk said: “I love you.”
“No, you don’t,” replied the other.
“Yes, yes, I do. I love you with all my heart.”
“No, you don’t. If you love me, why don’t you know what hurts me?”
(Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev)
Our sages have said: “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4). Since the only person in whose place you can truly stand is yourself, this means that you are qualified to judge only yourself.
Regarding yourself, you must condemn your moral and spiritual failings, and be critical of your every achievement. Regarding your fellow, however, you must employ a double standard: your love and esteem toward him should be amplified by every positive quality you see in him, and should not to be affected in the least by any seemingly negative things you might observe.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
Said Father: “There are things upon which one must look with a right eye, with affection and empathy; and there are things upon which one must look with a left eye—severely and critically. On one’s fellow man, one should look with a right eye; on oneself, one should look with a left eye.”
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
The Torah commands to “love your fellow as yourself.” Why only as much as yourself?
Indeed, chassidim have always maintained that the meaning of the verse is the very opposite of how it is commonly understood. Despite all that you know about yourself, the Torah is saying, you should try to love yourself as much as you love your fellow . . .
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
When you come into the land and plant any type of tree for food . . . three years shall it be orlah unto you: it shall not be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy for praise-giving to G‑d. And in the fifth year you shall eat of its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase . . . (19:23–25)
Thus the fruit tree passes though all three basic halachic (Torah-legal) states: the forbidden, the sanctified and the permissible.
The fruit tree can therefore be seen as representative of the whole of creation, which likewise is divided among these three categories. There are, for example, foods that are forbidden to us (e.g., pork, meat with milk); foods whose consumption is a mitzvah—an act that sanctifies the food, elevating it as an object of the Divine will (such as matzah on the Seder night); and foods that are spiritually “neutral”—eating them is neither a transgression nor a sanctifying act. The same applies to clothes (the forbidden shaatnez, the mitzvah of tzitzit, ordinary clothes); speech (gossip and slander, the holy talk of prayer and Torah study, talk of everyday matters); sexuality (adultery and incest, the mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply,” ordinary marital life); money (thievery; charity; legal business dealings); and to every other area of life.
Otherwise stated: there are elements of our experience and environment that G‑d commands us to reject and disavow; elements that we are empowered to sanctify by directly involving them in our relationship with G‑d; and finally, there are elements which, even as they serve as the “supporting cast” for our fulfillment of G‑d’s will (such as the food that provides us with the energy to pray), remain ordinary and mundane.
In light of this, would it not have been more appropriate for the three stages of the fruit tree to follow an order of increasing sanctity—i.e., the forbidden, followed by the permissible, and culminating in the holy? Instead the Torah legislates three forbidden years, followed by a year in which the fruit is sacred and its consumption a mitzvah, after which the fruit becomes ordinary food! Even more surprising is the fact that the fruit of the fifth year is presented as the product and goal of the first four: for three years you shall abstain from a tree’s fruit, says the Torah, and in the fourth year you shall sanctify it, so that on the fifth year “it may yield to you its increase.” Keep from transgression and sanctify the holy, so that you should have a lot of ordinary fruit to eat!
In truth, however, the ultimate purpose of our lives lies in the realm of the “ordinary.” Only a small percentage of the world’s leather is made into tefillin; only a small part of a community’s man-hours can be devoted to prayer and Torah-study. The greater part of our lives falls under the “spiritually neutral” category: elements that, even as they serve a life that is predicated on a commitment to the Divine will, remain ordinary and mundane components of a material existence; elements whose positive function does not touch them deeply enough to impart to them the “holiness” that spells a manifest and tagible attachment to the Divine. But it is in this area that we most serve G‑d’s desire for “a dwelling place in the lowly realms”—that the ordinary landscape of material life should be made hospitable to His presence and subservient to His will.
(The Chassidic Masters)
The rabbis taught: I might think, even before an aged sinner; but the Torah uses the word zakein (“old man”), which refers to a sage . . . to one who has acquired wisdom . . .
But Issi ben Yehudah said: “You shall rise before the white-haired” implies any hoary head.
Said Rabbi Yochanan: The law follows Issi ben Yehudah. Rabbi Yochanan used to rise before the heathen aged, saying: “How many experiences have passed over these!”
(Talmud, Kiddushin 32b–33a)
The Torah considers old age a virtue and a blessing. It instructs to respect all elderly, regardless of their scholarship and piety, because the many trials and experiences that each additional year of life brings yield a wisdom which the most accomplished young prodigy cannot equal.
This is in marked contrast to the prevalent attitude in the “developed” countries of today’s world, where old age is a liability. Youth is seen as the highest credential in every field from business to government, as a younger generation insists on “learning from their own mistakes” rather than building upon the life experience of their elders. At 50, a person is considered “over the hill” and is already receiving hints that his position would be better filled by someone twenty-five years his junior; in many companies and institutions, retirement is mandatory by age 65 or earlier.
Thus society dictates that ones later years be marked by inactivity and decline. The aged are made to feel that they are useless, if not a burden, and had best confine themselves to retirement villages and nursing homes. After decades of achievement, their knowledge and talent are suddenly worthless; after decades of contributing to society, they are suddenly undeserving recipients, grateful for every time the younger generation takes off from work and play to drop by for a half-hour chat and the requisite Father’s Day necktie.
On the surface, the modern-day attitude seems at least partly justified. Is it not a fact that a person physically weakens as he advances in years? True, the inactivity of retirement has been shown to be a key factor in the deterioration of the elderly; but is it still not an inescapable fact of nature that the body of a 70-year-old is not the body of a 20-year-old?
But this, precisely, is the point: is a person’s worth to be measured by his physical prowess? By the number of man-hours and intercontinental flights that can be extracted from him per week? Our attitude toward the aged reflects our very conception of “value.” If a person’s physical strength has waned while his sagacity and insight have grown, do we view this as an improvement or a decline? If a person’s output has diminished in quantity but has increased in quality, has his net worth risen or fallen?
Indeed, a twenty-year-old can dance the night away while his grandmother tires after a few minutes. But man was not created to dance for hours on end. Man was created to make life on earth purer, brighter and holier than it was before he came on the scene. Seen in this light, the spiritual maturity of the aged more than compensates for their lessened physical strength.
Certainly, the physical health of the body affects one’s productivity. Life is a marriage of body and soul, and is at its most productive when nurtured by a sound physique as well as a healthy spirit. But the effects of the aging process upon a person’s productivity are largely determined by the manner in which he regards this marriage and partnership. Which is the means and which is the end? If the soul is nothing more than an engine to drive the body’s procurement of its needs and aims, then the body’s physical weakening with age brings with it a spiritual deterioration as well—a descent into boredom, futility and despair. But when one regards the body as an accessory to the soul, the very opposite is the case: the spiritual growth of old age invigorates the body, enabling one to lead a productive existence for as long as the Almighty grants one the gift of life.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)