Love your fellow as yourself
This is a fundamental principle in the Torah
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand disciples, but because they “did not respect each other,” a plague broke out in which they all perished. It is for this reason that the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are a time of mourning, for it was in this period that Rabbi Akiva’s students died. 1
The most famous of Rabbi Akiva’s teachings is the saying: “ ‘Love your fellow as yourself’—this is a fundamental principle in Torah.” 2 One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle; how was it that they, of all people, were deficient in this area?
But it was their very diligence in fulfilling the precept “Love your fellow as yourself” that was their undoing. Our sages have said that “Just as every person’s face differs from the faces of his fellows, so, too, every person’s mind differs from the minds of his fellows.” 3 When the twenty-four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva studied their master’s teachings, the result was twenty-four thousand nuances of understanding, as the same concepts were assimilated by twenty-four thousand minds, each unique and distinct from its 23,999 compatriots. Had Rabbi Akiva’s students been less concerned with each other’s welfare, this would have been a matter of minor concern; but because each disciple loved his fellows as he loved himself, he felt himself duty-bound to correct their “erroneous” thinking and enlighten them as to the true meaning of their master’s words. For the same reason, they found themselves incapable of expressing a hypocritical “respect” for each other’s views when they sincerely felt that the other’s understanding was lacking, even in the slightest degree.
A Dual Lesson
The greater a person is, the higher the standards by which he is judged; in the words of our sages, “With the righteous, G-d is exacting to a hairsbreadth.” 4 Thus, what for people of our caliber would be considered a “minor” failing had such a devastating effect upon the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. But our sages chose to record this story for posterity; indeed, it has been fixed in our lives by a series of laws that govern our behavior in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot each year. Obviously, we, too, have something to learn from what happened to Rabbi Akiva’s disciples.
The lesson is a twofold one: we must learn from their virtues as well as from their mistakes. We must learn to care enough for our fellow man not to indulge his errors and accommodate his failings; this might be the easiest and most socially comfortable way to behave, but, rather than “tolerance,” it bespeaks an indifference toward his welfare. On the other hand, we must never allow this to lessen in the slightest our respect and esteem toward him, no matter how misguided and unresponsive he might be.
If this seems paradoxical, it is. But regarding ourselves, it is a paradox with which we are quite comfortable—every psychologically healthy person loves himself and, at the same time, incessantly strives to improve himself. So it is a paradox that we must also cultivate in our relationship with others. To either temper our efforts to enlighten and better our fellow man out of respect for his views and feelings, or to allow these efforts to compromise our love and respect for him, is to fail to love him as we love ourselves—a principle which Rabbi Akiva considered fundamental to G-d’s blueprint for life and of which Hillel said: “This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.” 5
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Iyar 17, 5744 (May 19, 1984), and on other occasions 6