A hypothetical question: Who is more religious? A person who keeps to the tee 612 commandments of the Torah’s 613 – all the mitzvahs, except one: “love your fellow as yourself” – or someone who stringently fulfills only this one mitzvah and no other (if that is possible)?
We seek to answer this question as we wrestle with the unpleasant fact that Judaism today seems populated by many devout Jews who present as judgmental, condescending and even hateful to those unlike themselves? Of course, many devout Jews are not like that, but those who are stand out. On the other hand, we also see loving people who are not necessarily very pious. Who determined that commitment is defined more by dress and look than by care and empathy?
And it is an apt time to consider these issues, for this week we read in the Torah about the greatest mitzvah of them all: V’ohavto L’roecho Komocho, which is a fundamental principle in Torah (as declared by Rabbi Akiva). And so today is most opportune to bring attention to a most compelling issue, one that is extremely timely and relevant to the divisive mood of our times – the importance of loving our fellows like ourselves, and what we can do about it.
Furthermore, what better time to talk about it then in these days of the Counting of the Omer, when we refrain from weddings and other celebrations in remembrance of the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who failed to treat one another with respect. How could such great students have defied their very teacher’s most powerful message: that love for another is a klal G-dol b’torah?! What can we learn from their mistake?
Everyone knows the classic story in the Talmud of the potential convert that asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah standing on one foot. Hillel replied: What is hateful to you don’t do unto your fellow. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. But as simple and heartwarming as this story sounds, after a bit of thought it is fraught with questions: More than half the Torah consists of laws between man and G-d (e.g. temple offerings, kashrut, prayer). How could Hillel say that not doing unto others what is hateful to you — loving another — is the entire Torah?! Then, there are many people who keep the entire Torah and are not particularly sensitive and loving?! And conversely, there are very loving people who don’t follow the Torah. So what exactly is the meaning behind Hillel’s words?!
A very moving and definitive story about unaffiliated Jews, a brilliant explanation from the Tanya of Hillel’s answer to the would-be convert and several fascinating anecdotes – all demonstrate the true, and surprising, meaning of Torah and love.