Our parshah, Kedoshim, contains the most famous words in the whole Torah, possibly even in literature: “You shall love your fellow man as yourself”. This quote is often used when we are speaking about building a perfect utopian world with universal peace and love.
There are two common mistakes people make regarding this famous Biblical verse:
(1) This verse is often confused with the words of Hillel, one of our most brilliant Sages. When Hillel was asked by someone who wanted to convert: “Teach me the Torah – while I am standing on one foot”, Hillel answered: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (Talmud Tractate Shabbos 31a). Hillel did NOT actually answer: ‘You shall Love your fellow man as yourself’! So why didn’t Hillel simply quote the most famous and holiest words of the Torah directly? (and why is it often attributed to him as though he did?!) Why did he shift this verse when describing the Torah ‘on one foot’?
Hillel understood that ”striving for love” is great and ideal, but striving is theoretical and it is simply not sufficient for our world. Rather than focusing only on ideals, we must focus on actions. Hillel’s advice is actually even more fundamental: even before dreaming of the positive actions you could do for others, simply start by avoiding negative actions to others. This is concrete, constant, and this alone can make a huge positive shift for a person and for society. This is actually the Torah, on not one foot but two.
(2) the second mistake we often make is ignoring the last few words of this parsha’s famous Biblical verse. The correct way to quote the verse is: “You shall love your fellow man as yourself, I am the Lord”. Now you might think, what’s the big deal in quoting the verse without these last few words? But actually, it makes a significant difference. It means that loving your fellow man is not just a recommendation. It is a commandment given by God that everyone must strive to fulfil.
Love is such a subjective thing; it is a fluffy thing. So many bad things have happened in the name of love. Thus, Hillel goes with avoiding the negative as a concrete notion for how to live a “good and Godly” life. And yet, the Torah itself uses love because the ideal must remain as our goal, however fantastical it may seem. Loving another as we love ourselves is not just a nice recommendation, but a direct commandment from Gd. But to practice this love on the ground floor, we need to first avoid doing harm, we need the Torah on two feet.