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Rabbi Israel Becker

Love Your Neighbor in 8 Easy Steps

There is a famous story in the Talmud about how someone asked the great sage Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. The Maharsha commentary (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631) explains that the question was not facetious. The questioner wanted to know if there is one fundamental principal that connects to the entire Torah. Hillel responded, "That which is hated to you, do not do to your friend."

The Talmud commentaries explain that Hillel was referring to the Torah commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). The centrality of love your neighbor was echoed several generations later by Rabbi Akiva, who taught that love your neighbor is a major principal that permeates the entire Torah.

The obvious question that many commentators ask is, "Why did Hillel change the explicit connotation of the verse, which was presented with the positive (to actively love)?" Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921) explains that Hillel is actually presenting to us a tangible way to fulfill the mitzvah of love your neighbor. Hillel reveals to us that the commandment of generating love is not one of quantity, but one of quality.

If you could measure the amount of love a person generates for himself, the normal human will certainly love himself more than his neighbor. For example, when a person looks at a group photo, the first person they notice is themselves. Are most human beings violating, then, love your neighbor as yourself?

G-d is asking of us to strive to generate more and more love for our neighbor. But He does not expect us to go beyond the scope of what a human is capable. What G-d demands of us is to provide the same quality of human interaction that we would want for ourselves.

Hillel is also teaching us that love your neighbor is not an abstract emotion. Love your neighbor is fulfilled by translating the emotion into concrete action. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), in his famous Haketav VehaKabbalah provides eight steps to fulfill love your neighbor as yourself. He explains that as yourself teaches not that we are obligated to give everything we have to the next person, because that is not what we expect the next person to give to us. Love as yourself means to do to him what you would want to be done to yourself, and not to do to him what you would not want to be done to yourself.

Rabbi Mecklenburg gives eight concrete very human examples of how to love your neighbor:

1. Be truthful.

2. Treat him with dignity.

3. Ask how he is faring.

4. Respond to his pain.

5. Greet him in a friendly way.

6. Judge him favorably (by giving him the benefit of the doubt).

7. Extend yourself when he asks for a small favor.

8. Let him borrow from you something that he needs.

Hillel's response to the questioner, which is recorded in the Talmud for all time, actually provides for us a tangible way to perform a mitzvah which we might feel is otherwise beyond our reachable ability, attainable only to a few select super-holy individuals and not something that every single one of us can apply constantly.

These steps may seem small and trivial, but Hillel is teaching us that small steps enhance G-d's world in a powerful way.