Giving Torah by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
Love your fellow as yourself
Our sages, of blessed memory, say “This is a great principle” [see Bereshit Rabbah 24:7 on Leviticus 19:18, in the name of Rabbi Akiva, cf. Sifra Qedoshim 4:12]. Such a claim demands explanation. “כְּלָל (Kelal), principle,” means “entirety,” thus, when they say love your fellow as yourself is a great principle of Torah, we must understand that all 612 mitsvot of the Torah, including all its writings, are embedded in that single mitsvah. This is quite perplexing, because you can say this regarding mitsvot between man and man, but how can that single mitsvah contain all the mitsvot between man and the Omnipresent, which are the essence and foundation of Torah?
Even if we were to strain ourselves and find some way to resolve the difficulty, there comes before us a second saying, even more outstanding, about a [would be] convert who came before Hillel and told him: “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” And he replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: that is the whole Torah and the rest is its commentary. Go and learn” (BT Shabbat 31a). Here we have a clear law that nothing has more importance, in all the 612 mitsvot and all the writings, than the mitsvah: love your fellow as yourself. All these come only to explain and enable us to fulfill the mitsvah of loving others properly, since he specifically says, “The rest is its commentary. Go and learn.” This means that the rest of the Torah is an elucidation of that single mitsvah—that love your fellow as yourself could not be fulfilled were it not for them.
Before we delve into the heart of the matter, we must reflect on that mitsvah, since we are commanded: love your fellow as yourself. Yourself—love your fellow to the same extent you love yourself, not one bit less. In other words, you must constantly and vigilantly satisfy the needs of everyone in the nation of Israel no less than you are always vigilant to satisfy your own needs. Now this is utterly impossible, for not many can satisfy their own needs during their work day, how can you tell them to work to satisfy the wishes of the entire nation? But we cannot possibly think that Torah exaggerates, for it warns us not to add or subtract, indicating that these words and laws were given in utter precision [see Deuteronomy 4:2: You shall not add to the word that I charge you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commands of YHWH your God which I charge you].
As if this were not enough, I will tell you that the application of love your fellow as yourself is even more strict, for we must put the needs of our fellow before our own. Concerning this, Tosafot says in the name of the Jerusalem Talmud regarding a Hebrew slave: “[At times he has only one cushion,] if he lies on it himself and does not give it to the slave, he does not observe as it is good for him with you (Deuteronomy 15:16), since he is lying on a cushion and the slave on the ground. And if he does not lie on it and does not give it to the slave either, this is the behavior of Sodom.” We find that he must give it to his slave, while the master himself lies on the ground [cf. BT Qiddushin 20b: “As it is good for him with you—with you in food; with you in drink… Whoever buys a Hebrew slave buys a master for himself!”].
We also find the same law in our verse about the measure of love your fellow as yourself, for here, too, the text compares the satisfaction of the fellow’s needs to the satisfaction of one’s own needs, as with the example of as it is good for him with you regarding the Hebrew slave. Thus, here too, if he has only one chair and his fellow has not, the law is that if he sits on it and does not give it to his fellow, he transgresses love your fellow as yourself since he is not fulfilling the needs of his fellow as he fulfills his own. And if he does not sit on it and does not give it to his fellow either, it is like the wickedness of Sodom. Therefore, he must allow his fellow to sit on it while he himself sits on the ground or stands. Clearly, this is the law regarding all the needs that one has, and one’s fellow lacks. And now go and see whether this mitsvah is within the realm of possibility.
We must first understand why Torah was given specifically to the nation of Israel and not to all the peoples of the world equally. Is there, perish the thought, nationalism involved here? Of course, only an insane person would think so. In fact, our sages have examined this question, and this is what they meant by their words “The blessed Holy One offered the Torah to every nation and every tongue, but none accepted it, [until He came to Israel who received it]” (BT Avodah Zarah 2b). But what they find bewildering is why, then, were we called “the chosen people,” as is written: You YHWH has chosen [to become for Him a treasured people among all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did YHWH desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples] (Deuteronomy 7:6), since there was no other nation that wanted it? Moreover, there is a basic question: Can it be that the blessed Holy One came with His law in His hand to negotiate with heathens? Such a thing has never been heard of and is totally unacceptable [cf. BT Beitsah 25b: “Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are impudent. The academy of Rabbi Yishma’el taught: From His right hand was a fiery law for them (Deuteronomy 33:2); the blessed Holy One said: These are worthy to be given a law of fire. Some say: The laws of these are like fire, for had not Torah been given to Israel no people or tongue could withstand them;” Zohar 3:20a: “The blessed Holy One invited the other nations to receive the Torah. Now, was it not revealed before Him that they did not want it? However, so that they would have no excuse: if only He had given them the Torah, they would have kept it”].
But when we fully understand the essence of Torah and mitsvot that were given to us, and their desired purpose, to the extent our sages have instructed us, which is the purpose of the vast creation set before our eyes, then we shall understand everything. For the first axiom is that there is no act without a purpose. And there is no exception, except for the lowliest of humanity or infants. Therefore, it is certain that the Creator, whose exaltedness is beyond conception, would not act—be it a great or a small act—without a purpose.
Our sages tell us about that, that the world had not been created but for the purpose of keeping Torah and mitsvot, meaning, as our sages have explained, that the aim of the Creator from the time He created His creation is to reveal His godliness to others. This is because the revelation of His godliness reaches the creature as pleasant abundance that is ever growing until it reaches the desired measure. And by that, the lowly rise with true recognition and become a chariot for Him, and cleave to Him, until they reach their ultimate perfection: Neither has the eye seen, God beside You (Isaiah 64:3). And because of the greatness and glory of that perfection, Torah and the prophets too, refrain from uttering even a single word of exaggeration here, as our sages said, “All the prophets made their prophecies only for the days of the Messiah, but for the next world, neither has the eye seen, God beside You” (BT Berakhot 34).
This perfection is expressed in the words of Torah, the prophets, and in the words of our sages with the simple word, דְּבֵקוּת (devequt), cleaving. But for the widespread use of this word by the masses, it has lost almost all its content. But if you linger on that word for even an instant, you will be overwhelmed by its wondrous stature, for you will picture the exaltedness of the Creator and the lowliness of the creature. Then you will be able to perceive the value of cleaving, of one with the other, and you will understand why we ascribe that word the purpose of the whole creation. It turns out that the purpose of the whole creation is that the lowly creatures will be able, by keeping Torah and mitsvot, to rise ever upward, ever developing, until they are rewarded with cleaving to their Creator.
But here come the kabbalists and ask, why were we not created in this exalted stature of cleaving to begin with? What reason did He have to burden us with this toil of creation and Torah and mitsvot? And they replied: “One who eats from his friend’s food is ashamed to look at him” (JT Orlah 1:5, 61b) [cf. Proverbs 15:27; Avot de-Rabbi Natan §37: “Two people eat from the same bowl, but each one tastes according to his deeds;” BT Bava Batra 110a; Pesaḥim 112a; Shabbat 53b; Bava Metsi’a 38a; Beitsah 32b; Zohar 2:198a; ibid., 1:22a (TZ); Rabbi Yosef Karo, Maggid Meisharim, Bereshit]. This means that one who eats and enjoys the labor of one’s fellow is afraid to look at his face since he becomes increasingly humiliated, until he loses all his dignity [lit., human appearance]. And since that which emanates from His perfection is never deficient, He gave us room to earn our own praise by our labor in Torah and mitsvot.
These words are most profound and I have already explained them in the first chapter of my book, Panim Me’irot u-Masbirot to Ets Ḥayyim, and in the book, Talmud Eser Sefirot (Histaqlut Penimit). Here I will explain them briefly to make them understandable for all. This matter is like a wealthy man who took a person from the market and fed him and gave him gold and silver and all desirables every day. And each day he showered him with more gifts than the day before. Finally, the wealthy man asked, “Do tell me, have all your wishes been fulfilled?” And he replied, “Not all of my wishes have been fulfilled, for how good and how pleasant it would be if all those possessions and precious things came to me through my own work, as they have come to you, and I would not be receiving the charity of your hand.” Then the wealthy man told him: “In that case, never has there been born a person who can fulfill your wishes.”
This is quite natural, since on the one hand, he experiences greater and greater pleasure, the more he showers gifts upon him, but on the other, it is hard for him to tolerate the shame of the excessive goodness that the wealthy man showers upon him. This is because there is a natural law that the recipient feels shame and impatience upon receiving gifts from the one who gives mercy and pity. From this follows a second law, that never will anyone be able to satisfy the needs of his fellow to the fullest, because ultimately he will not be able to give him the nature and the form of self-possession, as only with this is the desired perfection attained.
But this relates only to the creatures, whereas regarding the Creator, it is impossible. And this is the reason He has prepared for us the toil and labor of Torah and mitsvot, to produce that exaltedness on our own, because then the delight and pleasure that comes to us from Him, meaning everything that is included in the cleaving with Him, will all be our own possession that has been attained through our own efforts. Then we will feel ourselves as the owners, without which there cannot be a sensation of wholeness [cf. Marx’s Theory of Alienation].
Indeed, we need to examine the heart and the source of this natural law, and who it was that fathered the flaw of shame and impatience that we feel upon receiving charity from another. It is understood from a law that is known to scientists, that each branch bears the same nature as its root, and that the branch also desires, seeks, and craves, and benefits from all the conducts of the root. Conversely, all the conducts that are not in the root, its branch removes itself from them, cannot tolerate them, and is harmed by them. This law exists between each root and its branch and cannot be breached.
Now here opens before us a door to understand the source of all the pleasure and pain in our world. Since the Creator is the root of His creations, we feel all that exists in Him and emanates to us directly from Him as pleasant and delightful, because our nature is close to our Root. And everything that is not in Him, and does not emanate to us directly from Him, but contradicts creation itself, will be against our nature and difficult for us to tolerate. Thus, we love to rest and hate to move so much and do not make a single movement if not for the attainment of rest [cf. Freud’s Pleasure Principle]. That is because our Root is immobile, at rest, and no motion exists in Him whatsoever. Therefore, it is against our nature and repugnant to us. By the same token, we love wisdom, strength, wealth, and so forth, because all of these exist in Him who is our Root. Hence, we loathe their opposites, such as foolishness, weakness, and poverty, since they do not exist in our Root at all. These stir in us a feeling of loathing and agony.
The foul taste of shame and impatience upon receiving from others by way of charity is because in the Creator there is no such thing as receiving favors, for from whom would He receive? And because this element does not exist in our Root, we feel it as repulsive and loathsome. On the other hand, we feel delight and pleasure every time we give to others, since that conduct exists in our Root, which He gives to all.
Now we have found an opening to glimpse the true face of the ultimate purpose of creation—cleaving. This exaltedness and cleaving which is guaranteed to come to us through our work in Torah and mitsvot, is no more and no less than the equivalence of the branches with their Root, may He be blessed. All the gentleness and pleasure and sublimity become a natural extension here, as we have said above, that pleasure is only the equivalence of form with its Maker. And when we resemble, in all conduct, our Root we sense delight. Also, everything we encounter that is not in our Root becomes intolerable, disgusting, or considerably painful to us, as is necessitated by that concept. And we naturally find that our very hope depends on the extent of our equivalence of form with our Root. These were the words of our sages when they asked, “What difference does it make to the blessed Holy One whether one slaughters an animal from the neck or from the throat [as the law dictates]? The mitsvot were given only to purify people” (Bereshit Rabbah 44:1)—cleansing the contaminated body which is the purpose that emerges from keeping all the Torah and mitsvot.
A wild ass is born a man (Job 11:12). The moment one emerges from the bosom of creation, he is in utter filth and lowliness, meaning a multitude of self-interest that permeates him, whose every movement revolves solely around himself, without a hint of giving to others. Here then one is at the furthest most distance from the Root, at the opposite extreme, since the Root is entirely giving without a hint of receiving, whereas the newborn is in a state of total self-reception without a hint of giving. Therefore, his situation is regarded as being at the lowest point of lowliness and filth in our human world.
The more he grows, the more he receives from his environment degrees of “giving to others,” depending on the values and development in that environment. And then one is initiated into keeping Torah and mitsvot for the purpose of self-interest, for reward in this world and in the next world, called “לֹא לִישְׁמַא (Lo lishma), not for its own sake” (BT Pesaḥim 50b), since one cannot be accustomed any other way. As one grows, he is told how to keep Torah and mitsvot “לִישְׁמַא (Lishma), for its own sake,” which is with an aim solely to bring contentment to his Maker. As Maimonides said, “Women and children should not be told of keeping Torah and mitsvot for its sake, because they will not be able to bear it. But when they grow and acquire knowledge and wisdom, they are taught to labor for its own sake” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:5). It is as our sages said, “From not for its own sake, one comes to for its own sake” (BT Pesaḥim 50b), which means to satisfy one’s Maker, and not for any reason of self-interest.
Through the natural remedy of engagement in Torah and mitsvot for its own sake, which the Giver of Torah knows, as our sages wrote, “So did the blessed Holy One speak to Israel: ‘My children! I created the evil impulse and I created Torah as its spice’” (BT Qiddushin 30b). Thus, that creature develops and marches upward in degrees of the aforementioned exaltedness, until he loses all trace of self-interest and all the mitsvot in his body rise, and he performs all his deeds only in order to give, so that even the necessity that he receives flows in the direction of giving. This is why our sages said, “The mitsvot were given only to purify people.”
There are two parts in Torah: firstly, mitsvot between man and the Omnipresent, may He be blessed, and secondly, mitsvot between man and man. And they both aim for the same thing, to bring the creature to the ultimate goal of cleaving to Him. Furthermore, even the practical aspect in both of them is really one and the same because when one performs an action for its own sake, without any admixture of self-interest, meaning without looking for any benefit to himself, then one does not feel any different about striving to love your fellow as yourself or the Omnipresent. This is so because it is a natural law for any being, that anything outside one’s own body is regarded as vain and empty. And any action that a person makes in order to love another is performed with a אוֹר חוֹזֵר (or ḥozer), reflected light, some reward that will eventually return to him and serve him for his own good. Thus, such an act cannot be considered love of another since it is judged by its end—it is like rent that finally pays off, however, the act of renting is not considered love of another. But making any kind of movement only as a result of love for others, without any spark of reflected light, and no hope for any kind of self-gratification in return, is completely impossible by nature. Of this it is written in Tiqqunei ha-Zohar with regard to the peoples of the world: “Every kindness that they do, they do for themselves” (Tiqqunei ha-Zohar 36, 22a) [cf. BT Bava Batra 10b: “Righteousness raises a nation. But the kindness of peoples is an offense (Proverbs 14:34)—all the charity and kindness done by the peoples of the world is an offense, since they only do it to magnify themselves;” BT Shabbat 33b: “Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai answered and said, ‘All that they made they made for themselves; they built marketplaces, to set whores in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them”]. This means that all the good deeds that they do, either toward their fellow or toward their god, are not because of their love for others, but because of their love for themselves. And this is because it is completely unnatural.
Therefore, only those who keep Torah and mitsvot are qualified for it, because by accustoming themselves to keeping Torah and mitsvot in order to satisfy their Maker, they gradually leave the bosom of creation and acquire a second nature, namely love of others. This is what brought the sages of the Zohar to exclude the peoples of the world from loving their fellow, when they said, “Every kindness that they do, they do for themselves,” because they are not involved in keeping Torah and mitsvot for its own sake, and the only reason they serve their gods is for reward and salvation in this world and in the next. Thus, their worship of their gods depends on self-interest too and they will never perform an action that is outside the boundaries of their own bodies, for which they will be able to lift themselves even a wisp above their basic nature.
Thus we can clearly see that toward those who keep Torah and mitsvot for its own sake there is no difference between the two parts of Torah, even in the practical aspect. This is because before one accomplishes it one is compelled to sense any act of giving, either toward another or toward the Creator, as unfathomable emptiness. But through great effort, one slowly rises and attains a second nature, and then one attains the ultimate purpose, which is cleaving to Him.
Since this is the case, it is reasonable to think that the part of Torah that deals with man’s relationship with his fellow is more capable of bringing one to the desired goal. This is because the labor in mitsvot between man and God is fixed and specific, and is not demanding, and one becomes easily accustomed to it, and everything that is done out of habit is no longer useful. But the mitsvot between man and man are changing and irregular and demands surround him wherever he may turn. Hence, their cure is much more certain and their aim is closer.
Now we can understand the words of Hillel ha-Nasi to the convert, that the essence of Torah is love your fellow as yourself, and the remaining 612 mitsvot are only its interpretation. And even the mitsvot between man and the Omnipresent are regarded as a qualification of that mitsvah, which is the ultimate purpose emerging from Torah and mitsvot, as our sages said, “Torah and mitsvot were given only purify Israel.” This is the cleansing of the body until one attains a second nature defined as love for others, meaning the one mitsvah: Love your fellow as yourself, which is the ultimate purpose of Torah, after which one immediately attains cleaving to Him.
But one must not wonder why it was not defined in the words: And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5). It is because, indeed, with respect to a person who is still within the nature of creation, there is no difference between the love of God and the love of his fellow. This is because anything that is not him is unreal to him. And because that would be convert asked Hillel ha-Nasi to explain to him the desired outcome of Torah, so his goal would be near, and he would not have to walk a long way, as he said, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hence, he defined it for him as love of his fellow because its aim is nearer and is revealed faster, since it is error proof and demanding.
In the above words, we find a way to understand our concept from above about the contents of the mitsvah, love your fellow as yourself, how Torah compels us to do something that cannot be done. Indeed, know that for this reason, Torah was not given to our holy Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—but rather, was withheld until the exodus from Egypt, when they came out and became a whole nation of 600,000 men of twenty years of age or more. For then, each member of the nation was asked if he agreed to that exalted work. And once each and every one in the nation agreed to it in heart and soul, and said We will do and we will heed (Exodus 24:7), it then became possible to keep the whole of Torah, and that which was previously impossible became possible.
This is because it is certain that if 600,000 men abandon their labor for the satisfaction of their own needs and concern themselves with nothing other than standing guard so their fellows will never lack a thing, and moreover, that they will keep it with a mighty love, with their very heart and soul, in the full meaning of the mitsvah, love your fellow as yourself, then it is beyond doubt that no man of the nation will need to worry about his own well being. Because of that, he becomes completely free of securing his own survival and can easily keep love your fellow as yourself, obeying all the conditions given above. After all, why would he worry about his own survival when 600,000 loyal companions stand by, ready with great care to make sure he lacks nothing of his needs?
Therefore, once all the members of the nation agreed, they were immediately given the Torah, because now they were capable of keeping it. But before they have multiplied into a whole nation, and certainly during the time of the Patriarchs, who were unique in the land, they were not qualified to truly keep Torah in its desirable form. This is because with a small number of people, it is impossible to even begin with engagement in mitsvot between man and man to the extent of love your fellow as yourself, as we have explained above. This is why they were not given Torah.
From all the above, we can understand one of the most perplexing phrases of our sages: “All of Israel are responsible for one another” (BT Shavu’ot 39a). This seems to be completely unjust, for is it possible that if someone offends or commits a sin that upsets his Maker, and you have no acquaintance with him, the blessed Holy One will collect his debt from you? It is written, Fathers shall not be put to death over sons… Each man shall be put to death for his own offense (Deuteronomy 24:16), so how can they say that you are responsible for the transgressions of even a complete stranger, of whom you know neither him nor his whereabouts?
And if that is not enough for you, see here: “Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority, if he performs one mitsvah, happy is he for turning the scale both of himself and of the whole world on the side of merit; if he commits one offence, woe to him for weighting himself and the whole world in the scale of liability, for it is said: yet a single offender [destroys much good] (Ecclesiastes 9:18)” (BT Qiddushin 40b).
And Rabbi El’azar son of Rabbi Shim’on, has made me responsible for the whole world, since he believes all the people in the world are responsible for one another, and each person brings merit or liability to the whole world with his deeds. This is twice as perplexing. However, according to what has been said we can understand their words very simply. We have shown that each of the 613 mitsvot of the Torah revolves around that single mitsvah: Love your fellow as yourself. However, we discover that such a state can only exist in a whole nation whose every member agrees to it.