Two Forms of Ahavas Yisrael

One of the commandments in the portion of Kedoshim is Ahavas Yisrael — loving one’s fellow as one loves oneself.1 There are two famous comments regarding this command. R. Akiva said: “This is an important principal of the Torah.”2 Hillel noted: “This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.”3

Hillel lived many generations before R. Akiva. Since the statement had already been made that Ahavas Yisrael is the entire Torah, what did R. Akiva seek to accomplish by stating that Ahavas Yisrael is “[merely] an important principal of the Torah”?

There is a statement in the Midrash that “G‑d’s thoughts about the Jewish people preceded all else,”4 even coming before His thoughts about the Torah. I.e., the Jewish people are spiritually superior even to Torah.

On the other hand, the Zohar says5 “the Jewish people bind themselves to Torah, and Torah [cleaves] to G‑d.” This statement seems to imply that Torah is spiritually superior to the Jewish people.

How are we to reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements?

The explanation is as follows:6 The souls of the Jewish people as they exist at their source are indeed spiritually superior to Torah. However, when Jewish souls descend into this world, the Torah is spiritually superior to them; their reunification with G‑d can come about only through Torah.

This gives rise to two opposite extremes in the Jewish personality: On the one hand, no matter how much a Jew sins, his Jewishness remains unaltered,7 for his eternal relationship with G‑d transcends his service of Torah and mitzvos.

On the other hand, because a Jew’s relationship with G‑d is so profound, even the greatest sinner is assured of eventually returning to the path of righteousness.

The above also gives rise to opposite extremes with regard to Ahavas Yisrael :

The essence of a Jew’s love for his fellow Jew derives from the essential unity of all Jews at the eternal root and source of their souls8 — a bond that transcends the stipulations and strictures of Torah. Keeping in mind this essential unity, all Jews should be loved equally, even those who are distant from G‑d and spiritual service, for on the most fundamental level it is impossible to differentiate between a righteous Jew and any other.

However, since a Jew’s mortal in this world is bound up with and subservient to Torah, Ahavas Yisrael — even of the degree that emanates from the root and source of their souls — is bound up with Torah as well.

This being so, it is self-understood that this love is subject to the laws of the Torah, e.g., one may not compromise Torah for the sake of Ahavas Yisrael. Thus the Mishnah says:9 “Love your fellow creature and draw him closer to Torah;” loving one’s fellow is to be achieved by raising him to Torah, not by pulling Torah down to his level.

The different expressions of R. Akiva and Hillel regarding Ahavas Yisrael will be understood accordingly:

Rabbi Akiva speaks of the practical level of Ahavas Yisrael — the level bound by the dictates of Torah. He therefore cannot possibly say that Ahavas Yisrael is the “entire Torah,” for if this were so, Torah would be interchangeable with, and could be set aside for, Ahavas Yisrael. Rather, Ahavas Yisrael is an important principal of the Torah, subject to its rules and regulations.

Hillel, however, speaks of Ahavas Yisrael in relation to the Jews’ source — the level at which every Jew precedes Torah. On this level, all of Torah is for the sake of the Jewish people, for it is the observance of Torah that reveals the nation’s unique qualities.

Since the essential quality of the Jewish people is revealed in the command of Ahavas Yisrael , it thus follows that “This is the entire Torah — the rest is commentary.”

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XVII, pp. 219-224.