The Ultimate Mitzvah—Loving Your Fellow Jew


The emotion of love has been the subject of poets and romantics for centuries. We need not enter into any analysis of that topic, but, as it relates to loving a fellow Jew, some kind of specific definition is obviously necessary.

There are 613 mitzvos in the Torah. One is to feel the hunger of the poor, and therefore to give charity. Another is to feel the discomfort of a stranger, and therefore to show him hospitality. Not to be cruel, even to an animal, is another mitzvah. These commandments, though differing in their details are basically all expressions of concern, compassion and love. But the commandment of “Ahavas Yisroel”—to love your fellow Jew—seems to imply something beyond the above mentioned mitzvos. Because all of those are commandments relating to a specific act. What does the commandment to love a fellow Jew add to the commandments to be kind, generous, and compassionate? It adds the emphasis of loving EVERY Jew, and that the love itself is a mitzvah.

The Alter Rebbe, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, said that to love another person means to find something in the other person that is similar to something in oneself. There are those parts of our lives and our existence that give us our individuality. These are the things that make each person different from another. And there are times when we must focus on our particular responsibility, our particular message in life. But the mitzvah of loving your fellow means being able to focus on those things that, rather than separating us, actually make us one. Once we discover that one thing which is universal to us all, we are in a position to love our fellow.

“A Jew who sins and violates his Jewishness remains a Jew,” says the Torah. A Jew is not created out of virtue. One doesn’t become a Jew by doing mitzvos or good deeds. Faults, sins and misconduct do not stop one from being a Jew. A Jew remains a Jew no matter what. And, on the other hand, no matter how much good a Jew does, he remains a Jew (and not an angel). We see then that the state of being Jewish precedes any choices we are going to make. Long before we decide to put on tefillin, keep kosher, keep Shabbos or go to the mikvah, we are already Jewish. No matter what decisions we come to later in life, our Jewishness doesn’t change, and it is not diminished.

What all Jews have in common is the part of G‑d that He breathes into each person, the neshama (soul). Appreciating one’s neshama allows a person to open himself up to every neshama in the world; this appreciation is a giant step toward loving every Jew. Because G‑d has placed a part of Himself in every Jew, we are capable of loving every Jew. That which makes one person Jewish is exactly the same as that which makes every other Jew Jewish. If one loves that part of himself, then for the same reason he can love every other Jew. That is enough to make one person’s heart miss a beat because of something that is happening to another.

The Alter Rebbe wrote that one’s view of another person depends on how we see ourselves. If what is emphasized makes one different—namely, the human, physical condition—then one is incapable of loving. Not only can’t he love every Jew, he can’t love anybody. Because the most important thing to him is what makes him different, that which separates him from everybody. Focusing on differences separates people. The only way to be capable of loving is by making unimportant those things that make one different and separate. What must be primary is that which is shared with everybody else—the neshama, the soul.

In a similar vein:

Chassidus teaches that when a person has a problem in his spiritual growth and development, he should discuss it with someone else. He and the other person sit together and discuss a G‑dly problem, so there are two G‑dly souls against one animal soul (the animating force of the body) —the cause of the problem. At first glance this is difficult to comprehend. If you have two people, and therefore two G‑dly souls, shouldn’t you also have two animal souls? How can we possibly assert that the G‑dly souls outnumber the animal?

However, when two G‑dly souls get together they cooperate on a project. Two animal souls do not cooperate. It’s against their nature to cooperate. An animal soul means a selfish soul. A selfish soul may want to sin, but it has no interest in helping anybody else sin. It gets no pleasure from anybody else’s sins. Therefore, one animal soul will not join another animal soul in its sinfulness. But, a G‑dly soul is naturally concerned and sympathetic to another G‑dly soul. That is the nature of G‑dly souls. So if one’s animal being, human being, ego, is most important, then this person is separated from everybody else in the world. Nobody shares ego concerns, and if those are the things that are important to the person, then he’s all alone. Or, as the Alter Rebbe said, he is incapable of loving—unless it’s for an ulterior motive. If, on the other hand, what is important is one’s Jewishness, that feeling opens the person up to every other Jew. When the soul which we all have in common, is emphasized, then we become one people, and it’s literally possible to love every Jew.

How do we go about loving every Jew? In practical terms it means seeing through the differences that seem to separate one Jew from another. One can see beyond differences in culture and language. When two Jews meet in an airport, some place in the middle of Europe, and one doesn’t speak Hebrew while the other doesn’t speak English, still there’s a feeling of kinship even though there’s no way to communicate. One thing which often does confuse us, and sets up a barrier between Jews, is degrees of observance. The person who considers himself perfectly righteous and holy might feel that he has nothing in common with one whom he considers to be a sinful person. The sinful person, or the unlearned person, might feel that he has nothing in common with the scholarly saint.

This difference between Jews is one that the Baal Shem Tov came to dispel in his teachings. The Baal Shem Tov taught two things. First, love your fellow Jew even if you’ve never seen him. You don’t have to share any experiences, you don’t have to share anything at all beyond the fact that you’re Jewish. That in itself should be enough to create a bridge and a bond between one Jew and another.

The second teaching is that you have to love the wicked along with the righteous. Since we love a Jew because he’s Jewish, not because he’s righteous, then we love the Jew who is wicked, as well. The Baal Shem Tov said that “Love your fellow Jew as you love yourself,” means to love the righteous and the wicked. The Alter Rebbe explained this concept further by saying that when the Baal Shem Tov said “the righteous and the wicked,” he didn’t mean that you certainly love the righteous, but you should also love the wicked along with the righteous. What he meant was that you love a Jew, period. You love your fellow Jew, and that’s all that needs to be said.

In practical terms, it means that you must relate to every Jew regardless of his behavior, personality, standing in society. But is that love? There is a connection that a fellow Jew feels for another Jew regardless of how the other person behaves. And no matter how strongly you disagree with the other’s behavior, you cannot dismiss that other person, because he’s your fellow Jew. To illustrate the point, you find that people who dress in the orthodox style, who happen to venture outside of their community, make other people very uncomfortable. But many people dress in very strange ways. You see Arabs of different religious orders in Israel who dress outlandishly. And yet, they walk up and down the streets of Jerusalem, and nobody pays any attention. But, should a Jew dressed in Chassidic garb, with a fur hat and long silk coat walk into a non-religious section, he gets angry stares. Why? Because he’s dressed funny! Why is his dress any more funny or strange than the dress of the Arab muhla. It’s not. It’s just that the Arab is a stranger, and therefore he can dress however he wants.

When a Jew dresses strangely then every Jew cares. Even though a fellow Jew doesn’t eat the same food or even act and believe the same, yet, if he dresses differently it makes us uncomfortable. Because he’s a fellow Jew and Jews are not strangers to each other. The true bedrock of loving a fellow Jew is that one Jew cannot disassociate himself from another, no matter how much he would like to.

A story in the Gemara about the great sage Hillel will help clarify the above point. A man came to Hillel and said that he wanted to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel summed it all up for him by saying. “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.”

Hillel’s statement doesn’t appear anywhere in the Torah or Scriptures. The commentaries say that basically Hillel was referring to the mitzvah of “loving your fellow Jew as much as you love yourself.” But, if that’s the mitzvah he was referring to, why didn’t he just say it? Why did Hillel make up this original statement? If a person is impatient, and needs to be told something quickly, then what is said should be something definitive. Hillel gave the man a very vague answer, which needed a great deal of thought before being put into practice.

The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, explained that what Hillel was really saying was very clearly defined and practical. A person can admit his own faults, and see them very clearly, and even talk about them publicly. Yet, if another person would point out those weaknesses, the first person would be insulted and very hurt. Why can one honestly admit to a fault within himself, yet that same person becomes offended when it is pointed out to him?

The difference is that when one sees his own faults it is within a certain context. Having assured himself of being a worthwhile creature, a person can proceed to search out his faults. Even talking about them to others doesn’t do any damage. But when somebody else sees the faults, it’s not necessarily within that framework of already knowing that the person is a worthwhile human being. We are concerned that any personality flaw suggests total insignificance. We fear criticism only because we’re afraid it might lead to rejection. Were it not for that, we would be very comfortable hearing and accepting criticism. We can’t honestly deny every criticism we hear; they’re all true to some degree. It doesn’t do any damage to the ego to admit that we’re not the smartest or the prettiest, or the strongest or most talented. That which hurts, that which is hateful, is to have our faults pointed out by someone who is not necessarily convinced that we are worthwhile human beings.

When Hillel said to this man, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others,” he was being very specific. He was talking about that thing which is hateful. Not “whatever” is hateful, but that which is hateful to you do not do to others. “That thing” is seeing another person’s fault, without first recognizing his worth. That’s what we hate and what we shouldn’t do to others.

What Hillel was doing for this man was summing up all of the Torah in one mitzvah, the mitzvah of “loving a fellow Jew as much as you love yourself.” Since the man was very impatient, and seemingly not very ambitious, if Hillel had told him “love your fellow Jew as much as you love yourself,” he would have thought it was impossible, too demanding. So Hillel translated it for him into practical terms.

You can’t measure the amount you love yourself. In self-love, before you see your own faults you already know that you are important, significant. No matter what your body and human personality turn out to be, your neshama is already valuable. And with that knowledge and security you can look at your faults and not be hurt. That’s how you love yourself: you consider yourself worthwhile despite your faults; you must know that your fellow Jew is worthwhile, too. No matter how the other Jew behaves, there is something very valuable about this person—the very fact that he is a Jew.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, that when talking to another Jew, you have to realize that every Jew is an only child to G‑d, the King of Kings. Therefore, when you talk to another Jew, you have to keep in mind whose child this is, even if he doesn’t behave like the child of the King of Kings, you have to remember who his Father is.

G‑d created the world very carefully and thoughtfully. Everything we see and hear is of meaning to us. If G‑d allows us to see the faults of another person, He is showing an opportunity to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. When we see another person’s faults, our first reaction has to be, “What are we being told?” Seeing the other person’s faults can mean that he will not improve his behavior unless we help him, because that’s the way G‑d set it up. Because, if G‑d is letting you see this fault, it must be your job to help him fix it. The second possibility is that the fault is in you, and you’re seeing it reflected in the other person. A fault in another person should elicit the reaction, “What’s that got to do with me? Why do I need to see this?” The other person’s fault offers us the opportunity to improve, to show us something in ourselves that we are not seeing. Therefore, we are indebted to the other person even if his fault consists of hurting us. This person is the messenger through whom this enlightenment is coming and there is no need to be hateful.

The ultimate part in love of a fellow Jew is that every Jew has a Divine soul, and regardless of how he behaves, that soul remains. Where do we see the evidence of this G‑dly soul? Love of a fellow Jew, taken to its fullest expression, is the ability to discover evidence, signs of the presence of a Divine soul, even in a person who does not, at first glance, seem to have any soul at all.

In pursuing the mitzvah of loving your fellow Jew, we start with the awareness that every Jew is a little piece of G‑d, and that if that piece of G‑d is not evident in the person’s life, then it is your job to reveal it. To help that person discover his own G‑dliness. Bringing ourselves together, being able to see past the externals and faults, to be aware of the neshama of a Jew, is what heals the wound of Exile, and brings Moshiach.


Reprinted with the permission of the author