You shall love your fellow as yourself – I am Hashem! (Vayikra 19:18)
Rashi: Rabi Akiva said, “This is a fundamental rule of the Torah.”
The Torah’s commandments can be categorized in many ways. One might list all positive commandments or all negative precepts. Others would list Torah-ordained laws as opposed to Rabbinically-imposed rules. Still others break down the laws as those between man and Hashem and those between man and his fellow man. Rabi Akiva proposed that “Love your fellow as yourself” is the commandment which encompasses all others, regardless of category.
Ramban points out the difficulty for all but the most righteous people to love others as they do themselves. True, one may not be able to feel the same love for another as for oneself; therefore, the Torah is commanding that one merely want for others the fullest degree of success, just as they want for themselves.
Other commentators struggle with this concept, stating that Hashem created the human with a sense of selfishness. In effect, a person is expected to want the best for himself which, in turn, will motivate one to improve one’s lot.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 62a) tackles a difficult situation. Two people are crossing a desert. One has a jug of water and one does not. The problem is that the jug contains only enough for one person to traverse the arid desert. Should the one who has the water share it with his fellow traveler? If he does, both will die. Should he give it to his friend? Then he will die. Should he keep it for himself? His friend will not survive! The ruling is that the owner of the jug should keep it for himself because “Your life takes precedence.” This seems to contradict the commandment to love your fellow as yourself!
The Baal Shem Tov explained the verse “Hashem is your keeper; Hashem is your shade upon your right hand” (Tehillim 121:5) homiletically, saying that the same way one’s shadow duplicates one’s action exactly, so, too, Hashem treats an individual in the same manner as the individual treats others. The verse can now be understood to be You shall love your fellow — as yourself I am — Hashem! If you treat your fellow kindly, I will be like you. If you treat your fellow magnanimously — I will treat you the same way.
This novel idea applies to all Jews — even to those who are otherwise wicked. Good deeds they did for others will bring even them chessed from Above. When our people approached Yam Suf a mere six days after the Exodus from Egypt, Hashem instructed Moshe to lead them back toward Egypt. The verse describes Pharaoh’s reaction. “Pharaoh said to the people of Israel, ‘They are confused in the land, the wilderness has closed them in’” (Shemot 14:3). Rashi is bothered by the fact that all those who did not want to leave Egypt died in the plague of darkness and all others left the country. Who was Pharaoh speaking with? Rashi explains that here grammar allows us to explain that the monarch was not speaking to the people; rather, he was speaking about our nation.
Targum Yonatan ben Uziel explains that there was a Jew alive in Egypt who survived, even though he did not want to follow Moshe into freedom. His name was Datan. Throughout the enslavement and into the years in the desert, time and time again the wicked, rebellious behavior of Datan is revealed and certainly categorizes him as “a wicked person.” How, then, did he survive when all others who refused to leave died?
Datan was one of the Jewish taskmasters who were beaten by the Egyptians when the slaves did not fulfill their daily quota of bricks. His self-sacrifice and mercy for the downtrodden aroused Hashem’s mercy for him when others were dying in the darkness. In spite of his continued wicked behavior, this “principle of Torah” stood in his stead.
May we all behave with our neighbors in a way that will boomerang Hashem’s blessings upon us always.