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Love: The Basis of the Torah

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By Rochel Cohen
MyLife Essay Contest 2017

 
Life issue: Low self esteem.
Children sing it. Teacher’s discuss it. Parents enforce it. Day after day we recite the same verse of ‘Hareini’ – I take upon myself the positive commandment of ‘and you should love your fellow as yourself’. Rabbi Akiva states that this above statement is the basis of the whole Torah, yet so many seem to ignore the last two words of the verse – ‘as yourself’. We are all constantly told how we must love every Jew – no matter how he looks, what he does, or where he lives – we must love him simply for who he is, just as we love ourselves. However, the question stands: how can we possibly love others, when we don’t fully love ourselves? Is it just taken for granted that everyone naturally loves themselves? Have we forgotten that we live in a world where people are having all sorts of medical operations, simply because they aren’t happy with who they are? Low self esteem is one of the main causes for depression. According to statistics, more than 90% of 15-17 year old girls want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, because they don’t feel happy with how they look. If this is indeed such a tragic issue in today’s society how can we just bypass the Torah’s clear words, ‘as you love yourself’, when they seem like such a significant and important factor? Through various sichos of the Rebbe, and the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya, we will answer the question of: ​Before loving others, how can one feel more worth, value and love of one’s self?

 
According to Chassidus, what is the meaning of ‘self’?
Before we explain how we can feel more content with ourselves, we first have to understand what exactly is the definition of the word ‘self’. The Google definition of ‘self’: “A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others.” In other words, Google defines ‘self’ as how you are ​different​ in comparison to others. However, Chassidus seems to completely disagree: The Alter Rebbe discusses in his first few chapters of Tanya – Sefer Shel Beinonim – that every Jew has two souls: an Animal soul and a G-dly soul. Every Jew ‘has a part of G-d, literally’. This is the true essence of each and every Jewish person. In other words, Chassidus defines one’s ‘self’ as a soul, a part of G-d. This G-dly soul is our ​similarity​ to others, and the connection of us to everyone else. So, when we want to understand, according to Chassidus, how one can feel more worth and value of one’s self, we have to understand how one can connect to the true essence of our real ‘self’, our soul, our part of G-d.

 

Step one
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they became aware of their existence and sense of being. This is the source of Google’s definition of ‘self’: self – consciousness, the body, As it says ‘And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked…’ When eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve had defined ‘I’ or ‘Me’ as their body, their physical self, the ego – the denial of the oneness of G-d.

In order to have self value, we have to get rid of that physical definition, the focus on the ‘​me’, on the body and the physical features, and start focusing on the true essence of me, my soul, my G-dliness. The Tanya says, we have to contemplate on how we are in true essence, a part of G-d, and G-d loves us. This will give us a great state of self worth. He is infinite, yet He chose ​me​ as a beloved child and He took me​ out of Egypt! However, one could ask: How did He take me out of Egypt? I was never in Egypt?

Step two
The Rebbe teaches how a Jew is commanded to recall the exodus of Egypt twice daily – once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, in every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally left Egypt. Each of us are taken out of Egypt daily. What does this mean? The Hebrew word for Egypt is ‘Mitzrayim’, which is related to the word ‘meitzorim’ meaning ‘boundaries’ or ‘limitations’. Our soul is in slave and captive to our body, our physical self. This doesn’t mean physically, but rather by state of mind. On Pesach, we are told to rid of the Chometz ‘risen bread’, which represents ‘the ego’, and eat Matzoh ‘unleavened bread’ that represents humility. In order to be free from our limitations, our doubts, our low self esteem, we need to get rid of our ego, and replace it with humility. We need to get rid of our ‘I’, our physical body, and free our soul, our part of G-d.

Step three
How can we leave Egypt – our limitations, alone? Surely a prisoner cannot free himself from jail! This is what it means when we say that ‘G-d took ​me​ out of Egypt’. Through us doing His Torah and Mitzvot, which He gave to us out of pure love, we can experience the exodus of our own boundaries and limitations of the physical world, and free our soul from the enslavery of our physical body! As it says in the Mishna: ‘There is no free man except one who is involved in Torah study’.

Step four
When we focus on the spiritual vs. the physical – the soul vs. the body, we realise that we are a part of G-d, and we are all exactly the same! There is no need to look at who is prettier, who is smarter, who has more money, who has a better job; because deep down we are all part of the same entity, we all come from the same place, with the same soul, and we are all part of G-d, which is a much deeper greatness; a much higher quality. The word freedom doesn’t refer to being able to do whatever you want, but rather reaching your potential. Reaching your ultimate mission of being in this world. We are not just a body, but rather a soul, a part of G-d. G-d put me into this world for a reason, I have a purpose, and I must reach my potential and fulfill my mission.

Step five
Only once we had been freed from Egypt, did we have the ability to reach the giving of the Torah, the start of our real relationship with G-d. Freedom is the necessary tool to have a good and stable relationship. So too, only once we are free from our own personal Egypt, our limitations, our ego, low self esteem and our physical body; could we then go on to having other relationships, and loving our fellow Jew. Because when
we love ourselves – our soul, we realise that we are all just the same, with the same soul, and therefore we have the ability to love everyone.

Conclusion
The topic in chapter 32 of Tanya is on loving your fellow Jew. It is no coincidence that this chapter falls immediately after the chapters on how to be happy and content with one’s self. The Tanya teaches us, how through focusing on G-d’s love for us, and our oneness with Him, we can come to an absolute state of true happiness. This happiness derives from taking away the ‘me’, the ‘ego’, the ‘chometz’ and reaching the goal beyond the state of Adam and Eve in the garden. To a state, where ‘ego’ is meaningless. The state of Eden, a state where we see each and everyone of us as one whole part of G-d, giving us the tool to love others, as we are all the same, with the same soul. We each possess a soul, a spark of G‑d. And, like G‑d Himself, this spark is infinite and unbounded. This reaches true unconditional love, of ourselves, our fellow Jew, and ultimately love towards G-d, Himself. We no longer are basing value, worth, happiness on how we are different in comparison to other; but rather, we are basing our true love on our G-dliness, bringing out our true essence, which is ultimately the purpose of creation, the basis of the whole Torah.

 

Sources
Chapters 1-32 of Tanya – Sefer Shel Beinonim
Sicha motzei shabbos parshas tzav yud alef nissan 5739 1979:
Sicha of the First Days of Pesach, 5732; Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, Yud-Tes Kislev and Purim, 5727

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