In college, I had a good friend — a history major — who had to fulfill a requirement by taking a geology course way out of his academic comfort zone. His plan for the final exam: he took his hundred pages of notes, summarized them into ten pages, then summarized those ten pages onto one page, which he memorized. I can’t recall how he did, but we made fun of him. Simchat Torah reminded me of his study plan. How can we celebrate the entire Torah in one day? (At least we in the Diaspora can space things out a little: in Israel, where they only have one day to encompass Shemini Atzeret AND Simchat Torah — and this year, when it’s Shabbat to boot — it can be challenging.) The Torah supposedly encompasses all that we do, think and feel. How to summarize it without minimizing it?
Others have distilled what the Torah can and should mean to us into one-day versions. Two of the most famous are Rabbi Akiva and Hillel. Rabbi Akiva in Bereshit Rabbah says that ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha, “love your neighbor like you love yourself” is a klal gadol ba-Torah, a “great principle of the Torah.” We cannot do anything that might hurt another person. Period.
In Masechet Shabbat, the sage Hillel took this up a notch in the story of the non-Jew who challenged him: gayreni, “convert me,” he said, al menat she-telamdeni kol haTorah kula ke-she ani omed al regel achat, “on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel converted him, saying d’alach sanei le-chavrach la ta’aved, “what is hateful to you do not do to a friend.” “That’s the entire Torah,” concluded Hillel. “The rest is commentary. Now go study.” If we want to really present ourselves to a closely-watching world as people of the Torah, we need to avoid doing things that we would not want done to us.
Rashi offers two explanations for Hillel’s line: one, just as you hate it when a friend doesn’t listen to you, so Hashem hates it when we don’t listen to Him. The second explanation: a “friend” means someone who is just like you, someone who is impacted by your actions and words. Seventeenth-century sage Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz in his Shnei Luchot HaBerit points out that most mitzvot are between people, bein adam le-chavero, as opposed to those mitzvot between us and God, those bein adam la-makom. We cannot hurt those around us. Period. The rest is commentary.
Journalist Bari Weiss in her How to Fight Anti-Semitism writes that the Jews historically always become “the symbol of whatever a given civilization defines as its most sinister and threatening qualities.” We have been accused, she notes, of being communists, capitalists, and, lately, colonialists. But what terrifies me now is that some of us can accurately be described as anti-maskers and COVID-deniers. Rabbi Yosie Levine of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, the shul in which I grew up, wrote in these pages this week that “where antisemitic scapegoating was once the basis of the narrative, now the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who proudly and openly flout the life-saving public health guidelines of our government.” And this is happening not only in distant neighborhoods, but in our own as well. Why people act this way after their communities and families have suffered from the pandemic is difficult to understand.
And the world is watching: “I fear the day will come,” he writes (echoing Bari Weiss), “when enemies of our people will triumphantly seize on this moment and use it to support the old typology. ‘You see,’ they will say, ‘this was always the modus operandi of the Jew.’ While our good acts today will not necessarily create goodwill that transcends time, today’s bad acts will certainly redound long after the last vaccine is administered.” These words chilled me.
Rabbi Horowitz explains that if we love our fellow, we will love God that much more so: by keeping one set of mitzvot we will come to keep the others. The words ve-ahavta le-reacha kamocha and ve-ahavta et Hashem Elokecha each have fourteen letters, he notes, and the number fourteen is the gematria of the word yad, or hand. Two hands, two categories of mitzvot. I’m not normally a big gematria person, but this parallelism speaks to me.
Since no one wants to become sick, we should do those things that keep others from becoming sick. And if we are doing something wrong, we need that wrong pointed out to us — but not with glee. “Tattling” on others with joy, instead of with deep sadness and empathy, is wrong. We need to preserve health, but we also need to preserve our mutual respect and love, our ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha.
We are all tired of living in unprecedented times – yet here we are. Let’s recommit to keeping Hillel’s axiom, which will lead us to keep “both hands” — and all mitzvot.
Not bad for a day’s work.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.