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Matan Torah (The Giving of the Torah)

“Love thy friend as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Rabbi Akiva says, “This is a great rule [11]in the Torah.”


This statement of our sages demands explanation. The word Klal (collective/rule) indicates a sum of details that, when put together, form the above collective. Thus, when he says about the Mitzva, “love thy friend as thyself,” that it is a great Klal in the Torah, we must understand that the rest of the 612 Mitzvot (precepts) in the Torah, with all their interpretations, are no more and no less than the sum of the details inserted and contained in that single Mitzva (singular for Mitzvot), “love thy friend as thyself.”

This is quite perplexing, because you can say this regarding Mitzvot between man and man, but how can that single Mitzva contain all the Mitzvot between man and God, which are the essence and the vast majority of the laws?

2) And if we can still strain to find some way to reconcile these words, there comes before us a second saying, even more conspicuous, about a convert who came before Hillel (Shabbat 31) and told him: “Teach me the whole of the Torah while I am standing on one leg.” And he replied: “Anything that you hate, do not do to your friend” (the translation of “love thy friend as thyself”), and the rest is its commentary; go study.

Here before us is a clear law, that in all 612 Mitzvot and in all the writings in the Torah there is none that is preferred to the Mitzva, “love thy friend as thyself.” This is because they only aim to interpret and allow us to keep the Mitzva of loving others properly, since he specifically says – “the rest is its commentary; go study.” This means that the rest of the Torah is interpretations of that one Mitzva, that the Mitzva to love your friend as yourself could not be completed were it not for them.

3) Before we delve into the heart of the matter, we must observe that Mitzva, since we were commanded: “love thy friend as thyself.” The word ‘thyself’ tells us, “love your friend to the same extent you love yourself, not one bit less.” In other words, you must constantly and vigilantly satisfy the needs of every person in the Israeli nation, no less than you are always vigilant to satisfy your own needs.

This is utterly impossible, for not many can satisfy their own needs during their daily work, so how can you tell them to work to satisfy the wishes of the entire nation? And we couldn’t possibly think that the Torah exaggerates, for it warns us to not add or subtract, indicating that these words and laws were given with utter precision.

4) And if this is still not enough for you, I will tell you that the simple explanation of that Mitzva of loving your fellow person is even harsher, for we must put the needs of our friends before our own. It is as our sages wrote (Kidushin p 20) regarding the verse “because he is happy with thee” (Deuteronomy 15:16), regarding the Hebrew slave: “when sometimes he has but one pillow, if he lies on it himself and does not give it to his slave, he does not observe ‘because he is happy with thee,’ for he is lying on a pillow and the slave, on the ground. And if he does not lie on it, and does not give it to the slave, as well, it is Sodomite rule.” It turns out that, against his will, he must give it to his slave, while the master himself lies on the ground.

We also find the same rule in our verse about the measure of loving our fellow person, for here, too, the text compares the satisfaction of the friend’s needs to the satisfaction of one’s own needs, as with the example of “because he is happy with thee” regarding the Hebrew slave. Thus, here too, if he has but one chair and his friend hasn’t any, the law is that if he sits on it and does not give it to his friend, he breaks the Mitzva, “love thy friend as thyself,” since he is not fulfilling the needs of his friend as he fulfills his own.

And if he does not sit on it and also does not give it to his friend, it is as evil as Sodomite rule. Therefore, he must let his friend sit on it while he himself sits on the ground or stands. Clearly, this is the law regarding all the needs that one has, and one’s friend lacks. And now go and see if this Mitzva is in any way feasible.

5) We must first understand why the Torah was given specifically to the Israeli nation and not to all the peoples of the world equally. Is there, God forbid, nationalism involved here? Of course, only an insane person would think that. In fact, our sages have examined this question, and this is what they meant by their words (Avoda Zarah 2): “God gave it to every nation and tongue and they did not accept it.”

But what they find bewildering is why, then, were we called “the chosen people,” as it is written: “the Lord thy God has chosen thee” (Deuteronomy 7:6), since there was no other nation that wanted it? Moreover, there is a fundamental question in the matter: Can it be that the Creator came with His law in His hands to negotiate with those savage peoples? Such a thing has never been heard of and is completely unacceptable.

6) But when we fully understand the essence of the Torah and Mitzvot that were given to us, and their desired purpose, to the extent our sages have instructed us, which is the purpose of the great Creation that is set before our eyes, then we shall understand everything. For the first concept is that there is no act without a purpose. And there is no exception from this rule except for the lowest of the human species or infants. Therefore, it is certain that the Creator, whose exaltedness is beyond conception, would not act – be it a great or a small act – without a purpose.

Our sages tell us about that, that the world had not been created but for the purpose of keeping Torah and Mitzvot, meaning, as our sages have explained, that the aim of the Creator from the time He created His Creation is to reveal His Godliness to others. This is because the revelation of His Godliness reaches the creature as pleasant bounty that is ever growing until it reaches the desired measure.

And by that, the lowly rise with true recognition and become a chariot to Him, and to cleave unto Him, until they reach their final completion: “Neither has the eye seen a God beside thee” (Isaiah 64:3). And because of the greatness and glory of that perfection, the Torah and the prophecy, too, refrain from uttering even a single word of exaggeration here, as our sages said (Berachot 34), “All the prophets made their prophecies only for the days of the Messiah, but for the next world, neither has the eye seen a God beside thee.”

This perfection is expressed in the words of the Torah and the prophecy and in the words of our sages in the simple word, Dvekut (adhesion). But for the widespread use of this word by the masses, it has lost almost all its content. But if you linger on that word for even an instant, you will be overwhelmed by its wondrous stature, for you will picture the exaltedness of the Creator and the lowliness of the creature. Then you will be able perceive the value of Dvekut of one with the other, and you will understand why we ascribe that word the purpose of the whole Creation.

It turns out that the purpose of the whole Creation is that the lowly creatures will be able, by keeping Torah and Mitzvot, to rise ever upward, ever developing, until they are rewarded with Dvekut with their Creator.

7) But here come the Kabbalists and ask, why were we not created in this high stature of adhesion to begin with? What reason did He have to burden us with this labor of Creation and the Torah and the Mitzvot? And they replied: “He who eats that which is not his, is afraid to look at his face.” This means that one who eats and enjoys the labor of one’s friend is afraid to look at his face because by doing so he becomes increasingly humiliated until he loses his human form. And because that which extends from His wholeness cannot be deficient, He gave us room to earn our exaltedness by ourselves, through our work in Torah and Mitzvot.

These words are most profound and I have already explained them in my book, Panim Me’irot uMasbirot to the Tree of Life, Branch One, and in the book, The Study of the Ten Sefirot, Inner Reflection, Part One. Here I will explain them briefly to make them understandable for all.

8) This matter is like a rich man who took a man from the market and fed him and gave him gold and silver and all desirables every day. And each day he showered him with more gifts than the day before. Finally, the rich man asked, “Do tell me, have all your wishes been fulfilled?” And he replied, “Not all of my wishes have been fulfilled, for how good and how pleasant it would be if all those possessions and precious things came to me through my own work, as they have come to you, and I would not be receiving the charity of your hand.” Then the rich man told him: “In this case, there has never been born a person who could fulfill your wishes.”

It is a natural thing, since on the one hand, he experiences greater and greater pleasure, the more he showers presents upon him, but on the other, it is hard for him to tolerate the shame for the excessive goodness that the rich bestows upon him. This is because there is a natural law that the receiver feels shame and impatience upon receiving gifts from the giver out of compassion and pity.

From here extends a second law, that never will anyone be able to satisfy the needs of his friend to the fullest, because ultimately he will not be able to give him the nature and the form of self-possession, as only with it is the desired perfection attained.

But this relates only to the creatures, whereas regarding the Creator, it is completely impossible and unacceptable. And this is the reason He has prepared for us the toil and the labor of Torah and Mitzvot, to produce our exaltedness by ourselves, because then the delight and pleasure that comes to us from Him, meaning everything that is included in the Dvekut with Him, will all be our own possession that has come to us through our own efforts. Then we will feel ourselves as the owners, without which there cannot be a sensation of wholeness.

9) Indeed, we need to examine the heart and the source of this natural law, and who it was that fathered the flaw of shame and impatience that we feel upon receiving charity from another. It is understood from a law that is known to scientists, that each branch bears the same nature as its root, and that the branch also desires, seeks, and craves, and benefits from all the conducts of the root. Conversely, all the conducts that are not in the root, its branch removes itself from them, cannot tolerate them, and is harmed by them. This law exists between each root and its branch and cannot be breached.

Now here opens before us a door to understand the source of all the pleasures and pains in our world. Since the Creator is the root of His creations, we feel all that exists in Him and extends to us directly from Him as pleasant and delightful, because our nature is close to our root. And everything that is not in Him, and does not extend to us directly from Him, but contradicts Creation itself, will be against our nature and difficult for us to tolerate. Thus, we love to rest and hate to move so much, that we do not make a single movement if not for the attainment of rest. That is because our root is immobile but at rest, and no motion exists in Him whatsoever. Therefore, it is against our nature and loathsome to us.

By the same token, we love wisdom, strength, and wealth, etc. because all those exist in Him who is our root. And hence, we hate their opposites, such as foolishness, weakness, and poverty, since they do not exist in our root at all. This makes us feel hateful and loathsome, and pains us immeasurably.

10) This is what gives us the foul taste of shame and impatience when we receive from others by way of charity, because in the Creator there is no such thing as reception of favors, because from whom would He receive? And because this element does not exist in our root, we feel it as repulsive and loathsome. On the other hand, we feel delight and pleasure every time we bestow upon others, since that conduct exists in our root, which it gives to all.

11) Now we have found a way to examine the purpose of Creation, which is to cleave unto Him, in its true appearance. This exaltedness and Dvekut, which is guaranteed to come to us through our work in Torah and Mitzvot, is no more and no less than the equivalence of the branches with their root. All the gentleness and pleasure and sublimity become a natural extension here, as we have said above, that pleasure is only the equivalence of form with its Maker. And when we equalize in every conduct with our root, we sense delight.

Also, everything we encounter that is not in our root becomes intolerable, disgusting, or considerably painful to us, as is necessitated by that concept. And we naturally find that our very hope depends on the extent of our equivalence of form with our root.

12) These were the words of our sages (Beresheet Rabba 44) when they asked, “Why should the Creator mind whether one slaughters at the throat or at the back of the neck?” After all, the Mitzvot were given only to cleanse people, and that cleansing means the cleansing of the turbid body, which is the purpose that emerges from the observation of all the Torah and Mitzvot.

“A wild ass shall be turned into man” (Job 11:12), because when one emerges out of the bosom of Creation, one is in utter filth and lowliness, meaning a multitude of self-love that is imprinted in him, whose every movement revolves solely around himself, without a shred of bestowal upon others.

Thus, then one is at the farthest distance from the root, on the other end, since the root is all bestowal without a hint of reception, whereas the newborn is in a state of complete self-reception without a hint of bestowal. Therefore, his situation is regarded as being at the lowest point of lowliness and filth in our human world.

The more he grows, the more he receives from his environment portions of “bestowal upon others,” depending on the values and development in that environment. And then one is initiated into keeping Torah and Mitzvot for the purpose of self-love, for reward in this world and in the next world, called Lo Lishma (not for Her name), since one cannot be accustomed any other way.

As one grows, he is told how to keep Torah and Mitzvot Lishma (for Her name), which is with an aim solely to bring contentment to his Maker. As the RAMBAM said, “Women and children should not be told of keeping Torah and Mitzvot Lishma, because they will not be able to bear it. But when they grow and acquire knowledge and wisdom, they are taught to work Lishma.” It is as our sages said, “From lo Lishma, one comes to Lishma,” which is defined by the aim to bring contentment to one’s Maker and not for any self-love.

Through the natural remedy of the engagement in Torah and Mitzvot Lishma, which the Giver of the Torah knows, as our sages wrote (Kidushin 30b), “The Creator says, ‘I have created the evil inclination, I have created for it the Torah as a spice.’” Thus, that creature develops and marches upward in degrees of the above spoken exaltedness, until he loses all remnants of self-love and all the Mitzvot in his body rise, and he performs all his actions only to bestow, so even the necessity that he receives flows in the direction of bestowal, so he can bestow. This is why our sages said, “The Mitzvot were given only to cleanse people with.”

13) There are two parts in the Torah: 1) Mitzvot between man and God, and 2) Mitzvot between man and man. And they both aim for the same thing – to bring the creature to the final purpose of Dvekut with Him.

Furthermore, even the practical side in both of them is really one and the same, because when one performs an act Lishma, without any mixture of self-love, meaning without finding any benefit for himself, then one does not feel any difference whether one is working to love one’s friend or to love the Creator.

This is so because it is a natural law for any being, that anything outside one’s own body is regarded as unreal and empty. And any movement that a person makes to love another is performed with a Reflected Light, and some reward that will eventually return to him and serve him for his own good. Thus, such an act cannot be considered “love of another” because it is judged by its end. It is like rent that finally pays off. However, the act of renting is not considered love of another.

But making any kind of movement only as a result of love for others, without any spark of Reflected Light, and no hope for any kind of self-gratification in return, is completely impossible by nature. It is written in the Tikkuney Zohar about that with regard to the nations of the world: “Every grace that they do, they do for themselves.”

This means that all the good deeds that they do, either toward their friends or toward their God, are not because of their love for others, but because of their love for themselves. And that is because it is completely unnatural.

Therefore, only those who keep Torah and Mitzvot are qualified for it, because by accustoming themselves to keeping Torah and the Mitzvot in order to bring contentment to their Maker, they gradually depart from the bosom of the natural creation and acquire a second nature, being the above-mentioned love of others.

This is what brought the sages of The Zohar to exclude the nations of the world from loving their fellow person, when they said, “Every act of grace that they do, they do for themselves,” because they are not involved in keeping Torah and Mitzvot Lishma, and the only reason they serve their gods is for reward and salvation in this world and in the next. Thus, their worship of their gods is because of self-love, too, and they will never perform an action that is outside the boundaries of their own bodies, for which they will be able to lift themselves even a wisp above their basic nature.

14) Thus we can clearly see that toward those who keep Torah and Mitzvot Lishma, there is no difference between the two parts of the Torah, even on the practical side. This is because before one accomplishes it, one is compelled to feel any act of bestowal – either toward another person or toward the Creator – as emptiness beyond conception. But through great effort, one slowly rises and attains a second nature, and then one attains the final goal, which is Dvekut with Him.

Since this is the case, it is reasonable to think that the part of the Torah that deals with man’s relationship with his friend is more capable of bringing one to the desired goal. This is because the work in Mitzvot between man and God is fixed and specific, and is not demanding, and one becomes easily accustomed to it, and everything that is done out of habit is no longer useful. But the Mitzvot between man and man are changing and irregular, and demands surround him wherever he may turn. Hence, their cure is much more certain and their aim is closer.

15) Now we can understand the words of Hillel Hanasi to the proselyte, that the essence of the Torah is, “Love thy friend as thyself,” and the remaining six hundred and twelve Mitzvot are but an interpretation of it. And even the Mitzvot between man and God are regarded as a qualification of that Mitzva, which is the final aim emerging from the Torah and Mitzvot, as our sages said, “The Torah and Mitzvot were given only so as to cleanse Israel” (Item 12). This is the cleansing of the body until one attains a second nature defined as “love for others,” meaning the one Mitzva: “Love thy friend as thyself,” which is the final aim of the Torah, after which one immediately attains Dvekut with Him.

But one must not wonder why it was not defined in the words: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). It is because indeed, with respect to a person who is still within the nature of Creation, there is no difference between the love of God and the love of his fellow person.

This is because anything that is not him is unreal to him. And because that proselyte asked of Hillel Hanasi to explain to him the desired outcome of the Torah, so his goal would be near, and he would not have to walk a long way, as he said, “Teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one leg;” hence, he defined it for him as love of his friend because its aim is nearer and is revealed faster (Item 14), since it is mistake-proof and is demanding.

16) In the above words, we find a way to understand our concept from above (Items 3 and 4) about the contents of that Mitzva, “Love thy friend as thyself,” how the Torah compels us to do something that cannot be done.

Indeed, know that for this reason, the Torah was not given to our holy fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – but was held until the exodus from Egypt, when they came out and became a whole nation of six hundred thousand men of twenty years of age or more. For then, each member of the nation was asked if he agreed to that exalted work. And once each and every one in the nation agreed to it in heart and soul, and said “We will do and we will hear,” it then became possible to keep the whole of the Torah, and that which was previously impossible became possible.

This is because it is certain that if six hundred thousand men abandon their work for the satisfaction of their own needs and worry about nothing but standing guard so their friends will never lack a thing, and moreover, that they will keep it with a mighty love, with their very heart and soul, in the full meaning of the Mitzva, “Love thy friend as thyself,” then it is beyond doubt that no man of the nation will need to worry about his own well being.

Because of that, he becomes completely free of securing his own survival and can easily keep the Mitzva, “Love thy friend as thyself,” obeying all the conditions given in Items 3 and 4. After all, why would he worry about his own survival when six hundred thousand loyal lovers stand by, ready with great care to make sure he lacks nothing of his needs?

Therefore, once all the members of the nation agreed, they were immediately given the Torah, because now they were capable of keeping it. But before they have multiplied into a whole nation, and certainly during the time of the fathers, who were unique in the land, they were not qualified to truly keep the Torah in its desirable form. This is because with a small number of people, it is impossible to even begin with engagement in Mitzvot between man and man to the extent of “Love thy friend as thyself,” as we have explained in Items 3 and 4. This is why they were not given the Torah.

17) From all the above, we can understand one of the most perplexing phrases of our sages: “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” This seems to be completely unjust, for is it possible that if someone sins or commits a sin that upsets his Maker, and you have no acquaintance with him, the Creator will collect his debt from you? It is written, “Fathers shall not be put to death for children… every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16), so how can they say that you are responsible for the sins of even a complete stranger, of whom you know neither him nor his whereabouts?

And if that is not enough for you, see Masechet Kidushin, p 40b: “Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Shimon, says: ‘Since the world is judged by its majority and the individual is judged by its majority, if he performed one Mitzva, happy is he, for he has sentenced the whole world to a scale of merit. And if he committed one sin, woe onto him, for he has sentenced himself and the whole world to a scale of sin, as it is said, ‘one sinner destroys much good.’’”

And Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, has made me responsible for the whole world, since he thinks all the people in the world are responsible for one another, and each person brings merit or sin to the whole world with his deeds. This is twice as perplexing.

But according to the above said, we can understand their words very simply; we have shown that each of the 613 Mitzvot in the Torah revolves around that single Mitzva: “Love thy friend as thyself.” And we find that such a state can only exist in a whole nation whose every member agrees to it.

[11] Translator’s note: The word Klal in Hebrew means both ‘rule’ and ‘collective.’

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