The Ten Commandments are not just divided between two physical tablets but two theological principles. Five commandments govern our direct relationship with G‑d, and five manage our relationships with others. Like the lines on a graph, one represents our connection to G‑d, while the other pertains to how we show up to everyone else.

As relationships go, these are high-stakes affairs. We are commanded to love the L-rd, our G‑d, with all our heart and soul, and all our might; in short, we bring everything we possess physically, emotionally and spiritually to the table. That means different things for different people, and each of us is tested to our limits. In the case of Rabbi Akiva, as he was brutally tortured to death at the ruthless hands of the Romans for the crime of teaching Torah, he jubilantly exclaimed how in giving up his life, he finally understood how he could fulfill this commandment in its entirety.1 Love, it seems, is a serious business.

And what about our relationships with others? Do those relationships have the same intensity? Can they? Rabbi Akiva taught that the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself” is not just one of the 613 commandments; it is the quintessential principle of Judaism. Likewise, Hillel described it as “the whole of Torah.” Presumably, we love ourselves and have our best interests at heart; similarly, we are to hold the dignity, interests and well-being of others as dear as we hold our own.

If We Don’t Love Ourselves, Do We Have to Love Others?

But the story of those who feel deep down that they are unworthy and unlovable is a tale as old as time. So if we don’t value, love or least like and respect ourselves, are we off the hook to love our fellow? While that may seem like a clever defense, you’re out of luck.

In Midrash, R. Tanchuma warns us: “Do not say, since I was shamed, let my neighbor be similarly shamed.”

On the other hand, how should we feel about ourselves? Many people find it easier to love others than do themselves. But what about the maxim that you must love yourself before you can love another? If that were the case, then with all these biblical imperatives to love, you would think that we would be commanded to love ourselves. Yet that relationship—the loving relationship to self—appears to be missing. Or is it?

The Torah prescribes our interactions with our Creator and other people, as well as every aspect of His creation. But why? To what end? It’s simple: Be holy. For I am Holy.

Who We Are in Our Deepest Reality

Self-love is part of that, but it’s not the same thing. I can act in all manner of ways and still feel like I love myself. I can disobey G‑d, even as I proclaim my love for Him, and certainly mistreat people, even those I love with all my heart. But I can’t do any of those things when I am in touch with the most profound spiritual reality—that G‑d commands me for the sake of His and my intrinsic holiness—for the sake of wholeness and inseparable connection. The key to loving others is not self-love, really, but self-awareness … who we are in our deepest reality.

It is not my fellow’s humanity that I am commanded to love—it is the divinity in each person that I must recognize—as well as my own, as G‑d created all of us in His image. For R. Tanchuma goes on to explain that when we shame another, we need to understand that we are shaming the very likeness of G‑d.

So then, the commandment to love G‑d and my fellow man starts to converge. Maybe it’s not two lines on a graph (one for the commandments between man and G‑d, and one for the commandments between man and man), but fundamentally, it’s the same line. And finally, which for some is the most challenging leap, we bring ourselves into the mix, as also being fully worthy of love and respect. This holistic connection is the basis for all the commandments, as it is the very operating system of the Jew.

If we really understood that, then everything is subsumed in the opening words of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord, Thy G‑d. But that’s overwhelming; we need process, structure, and guidance. So, we have 613 pathways to get back to that one simple truth. Be holy for I am holy—and, therefore, love and connect to that which is holy. And while it’s our nature, it’s not necessarily natural. Therefore, Hillel commands us: Go and learn.

What Self-Love Does Not Mean

In the 49 days between leaving Egypt and receiving the Ten Commandments at the foot of Mount Sinai, G‑d removed 49 levels of negativity. Each day, we peeled off another layer of our false Egyptian nature and became more of our true selves. Michelangelo famously explained that in sculpting David, he merely removed everything that was not David, and we can do the same. To love and treat ourselves with compassion is a journey of self-awareness and regaining self-trust, letting go of what is false and doesn’t serve our holy mission.

The first step is to give yourself permission to love yourself and drop the negative associations you have about what that means. Self-love doesn’t mean that you are selfish and self-absorbed, but that you develop a trusting heart that welcomes yourself as worthy of love and respect.

Since we are hard-wired for connection and relationships, self-love is the basis for radiating that love outwards to others.For as the Tanya teaches us in chapter 32 (which just so “happens” to correspond numerically to lev/“heart”), the only way to love others is by connecting to and loving the “inner spark” the soul.

A Daily Commitment

The journey to Sinai continued after our arrival. Accepting the Torah was not a one-and-done, but an ongoing daily commitment of lived choices. We were enslaved in Egypt for more than 200. We didn’t drop all that baggage overnight, in 49 days or maybe even the 40 years in the desert. Leaving Egypt remains an ongoing personal and national challenge. So is the obligation to continue to accept Torah—not only every year at Shavuot, but when we awaken every morning with a mission to accomplish.

Just like the lines converge when we understand that loving G‑d and our fellow man are but two sides of the same coin, so is leaving Egypt and accepting Torah an inextricable reality. As we approach Shavuot and deepen our connection with the holy Commandments that shape our behavior, let us do the inner work of shaping our souls. In the process, make sure to have plenty of compassion, acceptance and love for yourself—and others.