Bamidbar: Unconditional Love


In the third month following the children of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt; that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai… And there Israel camped opposite the mountain (Exodus 19:1-2)

At all their other encampments, the verse says vayachanu (“and they camped,” in the plural); here it says vayichan (“and he camped,” in the singular). For all other encampments were in argument and dissent, whereas here they camped as one human, with one heart (Mechilta, Rashi)

The most important of all principles – as well as the most elusive – is love and unity between individuals. The greatest of all sages, Rabbi Akiva, declared, that the mitzvah “love your fellow as yourself” is the cardinal principle – the essence – of Torah.

This may explain why loving our fellow is indeed so difficult: The more powerful a force, the greater the resistance to it.

Before the Torah could be given at Sinai it was necessary that the people stand together as one, “as one person, with one heart.”

Yet, as simple as this may sound, living in such harmony is hardly simple. It’s bad enough that inherent self-interest divides people. What is even more troubling is when people “justify” their reasoning for being divisive and rejecting others. Some even dress it up in “holy” garments, arguing that their objection to others is “not personal,” but it’s what G-d wants (as if they know what G-d really wants)…

Love your fellow takes on special significance this year on Shavuot when we honor the 250th yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov (1760-2010), founder of Chassidus, who made it his life mission to propagate love to all people unconditionally.

In this spirit, we bring you a correspondence on this related subject.

Dear Rabbi Simon,

[In response to your article Was Moses Orthodox] How strange it is that Jews should love everyone unconditionally including the criminal! There are three problems with your statement: One, that we are commanded to love everyone. This is absurd! Not every one deserves to be loved equally. People should deserve love by being good and kind and loving. Two, that this love should be unconditional. What a concept! We should love our children and spouses unconditionally. The commandment concerning our parents states that we must honor our parents, the word love is not even hinted, kal va’homer people other than our parents. This is such a Christian babble! Three, that we should love the criminals unconditionally. Again, a Christian babble. Criminals should be punished and suffer, not supported and loved. You love people who deserve your love.

Where does it say in our Bible that God loves everyone including the criminals? On the contrary, He goes after the evil and wicked with a mighty wrath to teach and purify. Yes, He allows the sinners to repent but first let them ask forgiveness, admit wrongdoing, pay compensation (monetary, jail, community service, etc.), truly repent and never repeat their crimes.

When you love someone, whether a criminal or not, unconditionally, you give him the power to continue his wrongful activities because he knows that you will continue to love and support him no matter what. How can you impact someone to be good if he is evil? Do you think your exemplary behavior will change him? You are really naive. You sound like a Christian and a psychologist.

No, I don’t care whether Moses was Orthodox or not. It is enough for me that he was Jewish. I am not a hyphenated Jew, but a very proud JEW and quite a knowledgeable one.

God bless, and HAG SAME’AH to you and yours and all of Israel.


Dear Ahuva,

Thank you for your note. A happy holiday to you and yours.

I am glad that you are a very proud Jew. However, since you write that you are “quite a knowledgeable one” too, I assume you know that Judaism is not based on personal prejudices but on the doctrine called the Torah – Torah she’bksav and she’baal’peh and the Torah authorities throughout the ages.

I will therefore cite the sources for what I wrote about unconditional love to all Jews, even criminals. And I invite you to do the same, and present your rebuttal, in kind, with Torah sources, rather than just opinions and feelings – mine or yours.

The mitzvah is “V’ohavto le’re’echo komocho” (Leviticus 19:18). The expression used is “ahava” (love) and not “honor” (as in honoring your parents). And not just plain love, but “komocho,” to love as you love yourself. [Commentaries even wonder how it is possible to love another as you love yourself (Ramban)].

This is not just another mitzvah, but a “klal godol ba’Torah” (Rabbi Akiva, Torat Kohanim on this verse). Hillel says that its is the “entire Torah; the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a).

In addition there is another mitzvah “not to hate your brother” (Leviticus 19:17). It should be noted that this verse immediately precedes the mitzvah of “V’ohavto.” The Torah sees it necessary to emphasize twice: “do not hate,” and then “love.”

This love is to every single Jew (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchos De’eot, 6, 3), even “reshoim” (criminals, wicked people) – Tomar Devorah (from the RaMaK, R’ Moshe Cordevero, p. 1570), chapter 2. See also Emek HaMelech, Shaar Tikkunei Teshuvah ch. 3.

The basis for this is the Mishne in Sanhedrin (90a), that “All Israel have a share in the world to come, as it says (Isaiah 60:21): And your nation are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in which to take pride.” Every Jew (even a criminal) has a divine neshomo (soul) that is eternal and immutable, and will therefore ultimately do teshuvah and have “share in the world to come.” (For more sources on this, I would be happy to send you an essay I wrote, if you so request).

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 9, 4) explains that all Jews are like “one body.” As inconceivable as it is for one hand to hurt the other, so too it is with the Jewish people. Only our bodies separate us, but by virtue of our soul the Jewish people are one. This concept is explained at length in Tanya, ch. 32, and Derech Mitzvosecho, mitzvat Ahavat Yisroel.

Question: What about the words in the Talmud (Shavuot 30a. see Pesachim 113b. Erchin 16b) that one who sees his friend sinning should hate him? Explains the Tanya (ibid), that this applies to a companion in Torah and mitzvahs,” one who is observant like himself, and only after he has rebuked him and he nevertheless has not done teshuvah. “But for the person who is not one’s colleague and is not on intimate terms with him, Hillel says, “be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.”

The Tanya then adds: “even with regard to those who are close to him and whom he has rebuked, yet they had not repented, when he is enjoined to hate them, there still remains the duty to love them also. And both are right; hatred, because of the wickedness in them; and love on account of the aspect of hidden good in them, which is the Divine spark in them, which animates their Divine soul.” One may however think that both feelings and attitudes are equal, clarifies the Tanya: “He should also awaken compassion in his heart for the divine souls that is held captive in the “evil”… Compassion destroys hatred and awakens love.”

Love is and should be the dominant force even in discipline. As the verse states: “Judge the people…(so that you) protect the people” (Numbers 35:24-25. See Sanhedrin 2a. Rosh Hashana 26a). Punishment in Torah is only a method to repair and purify, and must be done with love not hate, with the intention to heal, not destroy.

[Moses broke the Divine tablets (and said “erase my name from the Torah”) in order to save the Jews who had sinned and deserved punishment. He went up for another forty days and nights, and then for yet another forty to pray for their forgiveness. Yom Kippur is the testimony to his success – the power of atonement, teshuvah (return – to one’s essential good). Prayer is yet another testimony to the ability G-d gives us to never give up, and even stand up to G-d’s decrees.]

This is fundamental Jewish thought, based on the principle that good is always dominant and inherent, and evil is an aberration and transient. In Judaism there is no such thing as original sin, damnation, and power of the devil that is stronger than good. Each human being has the independent power to battle the forces of evil and prevail. I actually found it ironic that you described my interpretation as “Christian,” when it anything but.

In no way does this permit, endorse or even tolerate wicked behavior. You are definitely right when you say that repenting sinners must first ask “forgiveness, admit wrongdoing, pay compensation (monetary, jail, community service, etc.), truly repent and never repeat their crimes.” True unconditional love does not mean that “you give him the power to continue his wrongful activities because he knows that you will continue to love and support him no matter what.” True love means that you do everything in your power to influence and change the person’s behavior (provided, obviously, that you have that power and won’t be hurt in the process).

Even regarding “heretics and atheists,” about whom King David said “I hate them with a consummate hatred” (Psalms 139:22), because they have “no portion in the G-d of Israel” (Shabbat 116a) – it is incumbent to bring them closer to G-d. The reason: Also they are included in the statement “the sins should be erased but not the sinners” (Psalms 104:35. Berochot 10a). And even their souls remain pure, and there is hope for teshuvah, and their return to having a “share in the world to come” (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah ch. 3). Even if they, G-d forbid, do not do teshuvah, their souls remain immortal (though they may live on in another state or in another body).

All this is so much more underscored in our generation, when heresy and wickedness in general is a result more of ignorance than maliciousness. In addition to the fact that we don not know what is in the heart of another person, and we must always judge a person with merit (Avot 1:6), and not judge someone until you are in his place (ibid 2:4).

Finally, and this perhaps is my most important point. I have personally witnessed and experienced the deep (and often justified) disillusionment of so many Jews in established religion (including the distorted views of an “angry” and “wrathful” G-d, and the fear and dogma related to religion), and I see the critical need to present Judaism with love and sensitivity, in a warm and non-judgmental manner, that is welcoming and allows for receptivity.

As Jews, what we need today more than anything else is to finally look at each other as brothers and sisters. And instead of all the infighting of “denominations,” recognize that we are all “one nation,” “one pillar,” “as one people, with one heart,” and that this does not need to compromise our diversity. We need to get beyond the labels and stereotypes that divide, and treat fellow Jews as our own family. If you saw your own child – or yourself, for that matter – misbehave, you would not cease to unconditionally love yourself or your child; yet, out of love you would also discipline the child, and you would let your child know that even punishment is coming out of love. In our case, we are not the ones responsible to “judge” or “discipline,” but our attitude has to be the same as with our own family. We do not need to compromise our own commitment to Judaism to love anther Jew who has not yet reached that place, and encourage him or her, and welcome them to encourage us to grow together in our relationship with G-d.

This was the motivation behind my article. So, based on your comments I wonder whether you have the same attitude as I do.

For more on all of the above references, including the unconditional element of Ahavas Yisroel – I would be happy to make available to you some original texts in Hebrew (if you read the language). But suffice it to say, that in this letter I cited primarily sources in Talmud and Halacha. If you add into the equation the rich and substantive literature of the Chassidic masters on Ahavas Yisroel, beginning from the Baal Shem Tov, you will find amazing statements – and beautiful examples from their behavior – as to the extent one has to go in loving a fellow Jew, unconditionally.

With blessings and best wishes for a meaningful and transcendent Shavuot,

Simon Jacobson


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14 years ago

This was an excellent response to the comments sent to you. Thank you. And I especially appreciate that you back up your statements with source material. My question is, why are we commanded to love our fellow Jews and not everyone? I know we are one nation, but what about everyone else?

Paul Neustein
14 years ago

Where does ahavat habriot (i.e., non-Jews) fit into the picture?

Richard Reiser
14 years ago

Reading your commentary always sets my day on the right path. What happens after is another story.We are all G-ds children and as such should respect and love his creations. I would expand that to his entire world. The plants and animals that were placed on this earth as well as the rest of the world around us deserve the same love and respect as our fellow human beings.Every living thing is a creation of G-d and while we may use it for our own purposes, it deserves no less gratitude. Shabbat Shalom and thank you.

14 years ago

It sounds from the article as if the ideas- unconditional love, love your fellow as yourself, all have a share in the world to come, eternal neshoma-are about Jews only, not others. I know some are of this opinion. What is yours?

14 years ago

Regarding Moses being Orthodox, in the past, I have pointed out to my inter-locutors that they may actually be more Jewish than Moses because they have the benefit of millenia of accumulated lore that he did not have the benefit of. There is a medrash that validates that idea where Moses is transported to the academy of R Akivaand he seems to lack comprehension as to the subject matter.
One of the thoughts that I associate with veohavto leracho komocho is that in
the relationship that we have with ourselves, self validation, self gratification, minimal judgment come automatically and without much forethought. Self acceptance comes as a matter of course, unlike with others.
In our comportment with others, we usually have an internal debate, asking ourselves whether the other is deserving of our beneficence, or seeking to recall when in the past they had extended themselves for us, in other words a mental process precedes
a loving act which would determine
the justification for our action.
Whereas with ourselves no such process would take place, unless we were on a diet (a joke.) In fact we would feel entitled to the gratification and not hesitate to bestow it on ourselves. In other words, we should be selfish for
the sake of others.

14 years ago

I was reading R. Eliyahu Desslers Strive for Truth today and it said something I think is related. The author was saying that G-d presents us with obstacles that mirror our own personal weaknesses(or our weakeness make us susceptible to attacks that highlight them). The author was talking about the traditional explanation for the destruction of the Second temple of baseless hatred. Then I thought of recent conversations about the evil and beyond-logic anti-semitism. Perhaps these two are related. Our lack of love for each other (the lack of understanding and tikkun of this experience) makes us that much more susceptible to be effected by anti-semitism.

Irwin Harelick
14 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I found your article enlightening and inspiring and I am especially gratified by your assertion that love is the essence of Judaism. But I am disappointed that you emphasize love for fellow Jews and say little, if anything, about loving other members of the human race. I believe Torah requires us to love not only all of mankind but also all of G-ds creatures.

You argue persuasively that mutual love within Israel was a precondition for receiving the Torah. You cite the commandment in Leviticus (and Rabbi Akiva) to “love your fellow as yourself”. The context in this portion of Leviticus clearly refers only to fellow Jews.

But Hillels instruction to love all creatures seems to refer at least to all of humanity. Samson Raphael Hirsch in his edition of Pirke Avoth explains brioth as …embracing all mankind without distinction. He loves all men because they are creatures of G-d. Furthermore what does Hillel mean when he says be as the disciples of Aaron who love all creatures? I suggest he is referring to G-ds promise …you shall be a nation of priests…. Just as the priests minister to Israel with love, Israel must minister to all nations with love.

In an earlier section of Pirke Avoth Shimon Hazadik says The world is based on three things; Torah, serving G-d and active loving kindness. Rabbi Hirsch interprets loving-kindness as referring to all mankind and I agree. After all, would G-d destroy the whole world simply because Jews are unable to love one another? Finally I assert that G-ds promise to Abraham …all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you (Genesis 12:3) can never be fulfilled without mutual love among Jews and all the peoples of the earth.

And what about all of G-ds creatures? I argue that when Hillel used the word creatures he knew exactly what he meant to say. He easily could have chosen another word – adom (man) for example. And who has the right to put words in the mouth of Hillel? But even if we accept the standard interpretation that he used creatures to indicate that we must love all men (the wicked along with the righteous) because they are Gods creatures, this leads inexorably to the conclusion that we are required to love all of G-ds creatures. I will add that the earth itself is a creature of G-d (Exodus 1:1).

Thank you and hag sameach,
Irwin Harelick

Rochel Leah Bergman
14 years ago

I have often been troubled over a seemingly wrathful God bent on vengeance in our chumash – often directed towards gentiles.
So thank you for a clear and beautiful explanation which I can work with and re-examine.
Rochel Leah

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