In an oft-quoted Gemara in Bava Metzia 62a, the Talmud confronts the following situation:
Two people are traveling on a distant journey in the wilderness. One has a canteen of water. Were the men to share the water, they would both die, but if one only drinks, he will remain alive in time to seek help. Ben Petura rules that it is preferable that both drink from the water and die, rather than one witnessing his friend’s demise. Rabbi Akiva disagrees: the Torah says that your brother should live with you”; Chayecha Kodmin – your life takes precedence over his life.
At first blush, Rabbi Akiva’s position here flatly contradicts the famous verse in Sefer Vayikra, V’ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha – which bids each of us to love our fellow Jews as ourselves; seemingly, we are each expected to love our fellows to the same extent that we love ourselves! To complicate matters, Rabbi Akiva himself, quoted by the midrash, hails this verse as the central principle of the Torah – “V’ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha – Zeh Klal Gadol B’Torah.”
The verse mandating love of a fellow Jew also ends with a strange “PS”: Ani Hashem – “I am the Lord.” Who did we think was dictating the Torah to Moshe until now? To unravel our mystery, let’s examine the concept of love as it is addressed by the Torah. In the Kriat Shema, we are bidden to fulfill the lofty commandment of Loving G-d: “And you shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means…”On this verse, the Sifri states:
Rebbe says, ‘Why was this said? Because it says, And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart. – (But) I do not know how to love G-d! The Torah therefore says, And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart. Take these words to your heart, because through this, you will come to know He Whose speech brought the world into being – and you will cleave to His ways.’
In other words, the rather amorphous obligation to love G-d is achieved through adhering to the directive of the next verse in Kriat Shema: through learning and focusing on Torah, we can each come to know G-d and cleave to His attributes.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his classic work, Meshech Chochma, deepens our understanding of the Sifri: Love, says Rav Meir, can follow one of two models: When a poor man who receives tzedakah from a wealthy man, says that he “loves” his benefactor, he is really expressing a love born of hitnagdut, opposition, even antagonism. The less fortunate man surely wishes that he himself had such wealth; unconsciously, he may feel at odds with the giver. The emotion the recipient identifies as “love” actually reflects a self-love; such love gives birth to a tension between himself and the wealthy man, a tension only relieved with the receipt of the gift. Only once the rich man shared his wealth with the poor man does this antagonism subtly subside.
However, says R. Meir Simcha, “love that focuses on the other, the recipient of the love, flows from the equality and similarity between the two parties – such as a Torah scholar who loves another…” When I appreciate that which binds me to another, I develop a deep affinity for that person, regard for his essence. One who has mastered the art of playing the violin who attends a violin concerto can have a deep appreciation of the talents of the guest performer; a student of art will be mesmerized by the sophistication of a Rembrandt far more than the uninitiated.
Which model best fits our love for G-d? His unbounded wisdom, infinite nature, and incorporeality surely make Him an unlikely object of this second, more profound brand of love. How can we say that our love of G-d stems “from the equality and similarity” between ourselves and G-d?
Our relationship with G-d instead seems to more naturally fit the first model of love: we love him as recipients of his beneficence. In our daily Tefillot, we look to G-d as the provider of life, wealth, and blessing. Sadly, it appears that our love of G-d is ultimately actually a love of self. This is the key, says the Meshech Chochma, to understanding the question of the Sifri, cited earlier:
….it says, And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart. – (But) I do not know how to love G-d!
The Sifri notes that the Torah requires us to love G-d with all of our hearts. This implies a thorough, almost selfless love of our Creator. “But I do not know how to love G-d – to this extent!” Asks the midrash: How can a mere mortal be anything but a lover of himself, a selfish recipient of Divine bounty? Man’s self-serving focus can surely not be what the Torah intended by its mandate to love Hashem Elokecha B’chol Livavicha! What is the Sifri’s answer?
And these words which I command you this day shall be on your heart. Take these words to your heart, because through this, you will come to know He Whose speech brought the world into being – and you will cleave to His ways.’
Torah learning paves the way for the Jew to cleave to Divine attributes such as compassion and mercy. Through Torah study, a Jew penetrates G-d’s wisdom, begins to understand the Divine mind. Incorporating the Torah into our consciousness and living a life consistent with Torah – creates a common ground between us and G-d. It fosters a degree of “equality”. It paves the way for the more profound selfless love stemming from an appreciation of G-d’s true essence.
Such a perspective sheds light on the mitzva of Ahavat Re’a, love of a fellow Jew. In Rav Meir Simcha’s view, “when you love a fellow Jew, do not love him for the honor or other payment that he will give you.” Should you do so, you would merely love yourself. Such a love often triggers the exact opposite result: It prompts us to seek out relationships of greater inequality – since such friendships provide us with greater self-serving satisfaction. Rather, we must love our fellow Jew in response to that which links us – our common heritage as children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, as members of a covenantal community that worships G-d and serves as a beacon to the nations of the world.
This approach solves the problem we raised earlier: How can Rabbi Akiva simultaneously bid us to love our fellow Jew as ourselves, but permit us to drink from the canteen in the desert at the expense of another’s life? According to the Meshech Chochma’s approach, that question was premised on a fundamental misreading of the intent of the verse: The term “Kamocha” in the verse, V’ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha, does not require us to love our fellow Jew to the same extent to which we each love ourselves; the Torah does not expect us to forfeit our lives on behalf of others. Instead, “Kamocha” describes the reason for, and the nature of, the love that the Torah asks us to experience. The Torah challenges us to see the common bonds that link each of us with our fellow Jew.
This approach even helps answer another question we asked earlier: Why does the verse mandating love of others end with the expression Ani Hashem – I am the Lord? Did not G-d dictate the entire Torah to Moshe? Does Hashem’s Divine name not permeate the entirety of Torah and mitzvot?
Says the Meshech Chochma:
וזה אני ה’, שזה דוגמת אהבה כאשר אתה צריך לאהוב אותי וכאשר אני אוהבכם…והשי”ת אינו מקבל שום תועליות משום נברא, ואדון עולם אשר מלך בטרם כל יציר נברא, וכן תאהב לרעך…
“This is what I am Hashem means: The love of your fellow Jew should follow the model of how you must love Me, and how I love you… Hashem, May he be Blessed, receives no benefit from earthly creatures, since He existed prior to the world’s creation. So, too, should you love your fellow…”