This week’s parsha is אחרי מות-קדושים, where we read a plethora of mitzvos, including ואהבת לרעך כמוך. The Gemara teaches that this is one of the most fundamental mitzvos, central to who we are. It relates the well-known story of a goy who approached Hillel and asked him to convert him on the condition that Hillel will teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. In other words, he was asking Hillel to teach him something that is the basis of everything else in the Torah. Hillel taught him the words: דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד, that which is hateful to you, do not do to another. Rashi explains that this is connected to the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך, which we read in this week’s parsha.
Why is this the most fundamental mitzvah in the Parsha? What does it even mean?
A chashuv Rav once related an incident that occurred to him as he was on a flight between New York and Chicago. He was buckled into his seat and noticed a stewardess repeatedly passing by, clearly waiting for the right moment to ask him a question. Finally, he raised his head and gave her an opening, after which she questioned, “Are you a Rabbi?” The Rav responded that he was an Orthodox Jew to which she asked, “I am extremely interested in the meaning of Judaism and the Torah. I see many Jews throughout my day. Can you quickly tell me what the entire Torah represents? What is its value system?”
The Rav answered with Hillel’s classic explanation: do not do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself. The stewardess wisely asked what this principle has to do with the prohibition of eating pork. If the Torah is truly only about not offending others, then why can’t a Jew enjoy a delicious meal of pork chops?
The Rav explained, “You are on this flight often. Do you ever notice that when you give an Orthodox Jew a bag of pretzels or peanuts, they hold it up to their face and seem to be looking for something? They are looking for the kosher symbol; they want to make sure that it is Rabbinically sanctioned.”
In order to be considerate of other people, a person must see past themselves. People who are conditioned to ask, think, or question can see the bigger picture beyond themselves. Those people can really love other people because they don’t live in an ego-centric world where all they see is their own needs. A Jew cannot simply put food into their mouth, take a drink, read a book, or watch a video; they must first ask themselves if what they are about to do is permissible. Thinking before we act to ensure that we are following the rules and restrictions set forth for us makes us more elevated and G-dlike.
Talmidei Chachamim are the nicest people in the world. When you read about Gedolei Yisrael, their life story revolves around בין אדם לחבירו- how much they notice other people and make room they make for all types of people in their lives. Torah elevates a person by conditioning them to look beyond themselves and connect to Hashem’s world. When a person sees less of themselves, they see more of the people around him.
This was Hillel’s message for the ger. The entire Torah is a peirush of ואהבת לרעך כמוך because once a person starts learning Torah, they see how small they are and have more room for other people in their life.