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A Different Perspective of Ourselves and Others

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

There is an often quoted Midrashic teaching (Torat Cohanim) which states: “Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 21).” Rabbi Akiva says that this is the great principal of the Torah. Similarly, the Talmud records (Tractate Shabbat 31a) that Hillel was approached by a potential convert who asked him to explain the entire Torah upon one foot. Hillel responded “What is hateful to you do not do unto your friend, the rest is commentary, go and study.”

While these statements resonate strongly within us, they are difficult to understand. It is true that the Torah contains commandments regarding our conduct towards other people, but the Torah also contains many commandments relating to our service of God, such as prayer, reciting Shema, Mezuzah, Tefilin etc. How is it then that Rabbi Akiva and Hillel indicated that our relationship to others is the overriding principle of Torah? Surely our conduct towards others is only half of the story?

The Maharal (Netiv Ahavat Re’ah) explains that the true basis for loving another is the realization that the core essence of another is essentially the very same core essence of oneself. In this sense we truly are one. Just as I was created in the image of God, so, too, my fellow was created in the image of God. He explains further that the purpose of the entire Torah is to perfect and manifest this image of God in which we are created. This explains why the entire Torah can be summarized by the principle “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This represents the Torah ideal of realizing and manifesting one’s own spiritual essence and recognizing that this very Godly essence is present in others, thereby binding us in a bond of unity and love with both our fellow human beings and our creator, God.

On a practical level I would suggest the following practice. While engaging with someone in conversation try and realize that the essence of the person standing before you is not his/her physical body. The person is much deeper than that — a unique manifestation of the image of God as are you. The person is therefore deserving of the same honor, respect and noble treatment as we hope others would bestow upon us.