ואהבת לרעך כמוך
You shall love your friend like yourself
The well-known words “Love your friend like yourself”, are so often quoted that little thought is given to their actual implication.
“Like yourself”? Is it really possible to love someone else to the same degree as one loves himself? Moreover, even if we were to assume that such selfless love is indeed possible for men of great stature, does it make sense for the Torah to set the bar so impossibly out of reach for the average Jew?
And then, there’s the more well-known question, which revolves around Hillel’s famous assertion that “This- the Mitzvah to love our friends as ourselves- is the central commandment of the Torah, upon which all of Torah is essentially a commentary”.
Does not Torah, goes the question, deal with Man’s obligations to God, just as extensively as it does with his obligations to his fellow man? How, then, can a commandment exclusively devoted to interpersonal relationship possibly serve as the foundation of all of Torah?
Rav Shimon Shkop, in the introduction to his famous treatise Shaarei Yosher, offers an entirely new take to resolve these difficulties. “Love your friend like yourself”, explains Rav Shimon, does not mean to love him to the same degree as you love yourself, but rather to love him in the same fashion that you love yourself. Love him as yourself, not as much as yourself. We are commanded to love others by incorporating them into our own identity, viewing them as an extension of ourselves whom we love, rather than as somebody else whom we pity. Certainly, we cannot love them as much as ourselves, just like we don’t love our toes as much as we do our intellect. Yet we must at least feel his pain as we do our own (think stubbed toe), and seek his good in similar fashion.
In truth, continues Rav Shimon, one’s fellow Jew is indeed an extension of himself, for the Jewish nation is possessed of one collective soul, of which each and every individual is merely a single “limb”, intrinsically connected with every other. Thus, in its deepest sense, the Mitzvah to love your friend as yourself is really an injunction to transcend the shallow perception of self, and replace it with a conscious sense for the truer, more expansive definition of self which encompasses the entire Jewish nation.
Taking this one step further, it now becomes obvious how this Mitzvah relates to God as much as, if not more than, it does to fellow man. As our Sages tell us, Your friend, this means God. (Or ‘God is man’s best friend’, a true maxim whose letters seem to have gotten scrambled somewhere along the course of recent history).
There can be no deeper sense of self, which does not include man recognizing the Godliness which lies at the very core of his being, more a part of his “self” than anything else possibly could be.
To love your friend as yourself, we learn, is to act in accordance with the recognition that your “self”, is but an extension of your friend, you, but a manifestation of your God.