On Sunday, November 15th, 2015 my university took part in the Global Day of Jewish learning along with several other campuses and communities around the world. The theme of the day was love, so I decided to give a shiur on the topic of what it means to love G-d and to love each other. Since I unfortunately could not record the shiur, this is a brief summary of what I felt to be the main takeaway message.
The Gemara (Meseches Shabbos Daf 31a) presents the story of a non-Jewish man who went before Hillel and demanded that the great rabbi teach him all of the Torah while he stood on one foot. If Hillel was able to do this, the man would convert to Judaism. Previously in the story, Shammai had kicked the man out, but Hillel was up for the challenge. Hillel converted the man, saying “דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור”. Artscroll Gemaras translate this as “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; This is the entire Torah; The rest is an elaboration. Go and learn.”
This line is apparently a paraphrase of the following verse (found in Sefer Vayikra 19:18), “לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ" which translates as “do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge against the members of your people; You shall love your fellow as yourself.” The relevant part of this verse is וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ- You shall love your fellow as yourself. Why does the Torah word this in the positive while Hillel words it in the negative? Marshah suggests that this is because the preceding part of the verse (לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ) is already worded in the negative, implying that loving one’s fellow as themself is already defined according to what one should not do for their fellow as opposed to what one should do for their fellow.
What if there is more to it than that, though? Think about what וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is asking someone to do. Loving your fellow like you love yourself is a lot to ask someone, especially if that someone is a convert who probably knows next to nothing about the religion to begin with. On top of this, social psychology says that humans are cognitive misers. Essentially, that means that human beings want to exert as little effort as possible when they negotiate with the social world (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_miser). In any situation, it takes less effort not to do something than it does to do something. In this scenario, not doing to others what one does not want done to himself is far easier for this convert to start out with than actively putting in the effort to do things for others and really love his fellow like himself.
I think that the idea here is a simple, but powerful one. Everything starts somewhere. the biggest tree in the whole forest still started as just a seed. דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד is far easier to follow for a beginner than וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ. But it’s also only the beginning. The new Jew will leave Hillel’s presence and go learn Torah in more detail. While he is doing that he will have in his mind not to do things to others that he would find hateful to himself. The absence of this negative behavior combined with his studies and knowledge will hopefully lead him to grow and become a better person while he is building up his knowledge, and one day learn how to truly love his fellow like himself.
In life, people are constantly in transition. Whether it’s starting a new relationship, or a new job or entering a new school, or moving to a new community, people are always given opportunities to start again. Unfortunately, people are often scared to take their first steps and make the most of those opportunities. I believe that an important lesson that can be taken out from this is that one does not need to hold themselves to the highest possible standards all the time. Even the smallest of steps can be great and have great impacts in life. The smallest pebble still makes giant ripples when it is thrown into the water. Every person in the whole world is capable of doing small things, even if those small things are only deciding NOT to do something bad as opposed to actively doing something good. The smallest actions can have the biggest potential for greatness. EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS. It is my sincere hope that everyone who reads this finds some small thing that you can add to your life, and does it. Eventually all of these small actions will pile up and the world will become a more loving place.