This week’s Torah reading contains one of the central teachings of Judaism, the command to “Love one’s neighbour.” It is well known that the verse – You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord – is considered one of the prominent teachings of Judaism. Rabbi Akiva called it “the greatest principle of the Torah.
However a question arises; despite the obvious importance of interpersonal relationships, belief in God and the performance of the myriad of man/God commandments are also central to Judaism. How does loving one’s neighbour, impact upon one’s relationship with God?
Rashi addresses this question: “Your own friend and your father’s friend forsake not (Proverbs 27:10). ‘Friend’ this is the Holy One, blessed be He, do not ignore His words for it is detestable when your friend ignores your words.” (Rashi Shabbat 31a)
The Hebrew word re’ya which we routinely translate as neighbour is taken as our only true neighbour – God. With this insight, the teachings Rabbi Akiva are deciphered. The true love which the Torah speaks of is to be directed toward God. However, if this is the case, then why not suffice to teach the verse You shall love the Lord your God? Why is man mandated to love his fellow man as well, if the true objective is love of God?
A parallel teaching can be discerned with regards to “Honour your father and mother.” It is a common teaching that the first five commandments are between man and God while the second five are between man and his fellow man. (See Ramban on Exodus 20:12.) This teaching indicates the dual focus of Judaism, the only problem is the fifth commandment – Honour your Father and Mother; how is this directed toward God?
Honouring one’s parents is perhaps the most rational of all the commandments. Why should we honour our parents? The answer is simple. They conceived us, nurtured us, clothed us and provided us with shelter. However, ultimately, who created us? Who nurtures us? Who clothes, feeds, and shelters us? God! Thus when man manifests his appreciation of his parents appropriately, he has completed a lesson in honour of God as well. We may say that the goal of honouring parents is the honour of God; therefore it is listed in the first five commandments.
Perhaps a similar relationship exists with regard to the commandment of loving our fellow man. Rambam, in the “Laws of Teshuva” discusses the ideas of “fear of God” and “love of God” respectively. He states that fear of God is more basic and accessible, but that few sages reach the sublime level of “love of God.” He writes:
“What is the proper type of love? One should love God with a great, superior, bold love, until one’s soul is bound with love of God, whereby it consumes completely – as if one was lovesick, whereby his mind is never free from thoughts of a particular woman, he always thinks of her, when sitting or standing, whether he be eating or drinking. More than this should the love of God be for those who love Him, as it says: With all your heart and all your soul…” (Rambam, Laws of Teshuva 10:3)
When Rambam seeks an appropriate example for love of God, he draws upon the paradigm of love between a man and a woman. Based on this example one may posit, that if a person lacks in this area, he will be unable to properly love God. Love of man is designed to serve as an impetus for love of God.
This lesson may be drawn from the story of Ya’akov when he found himself reunited with Yosef, the son whom he had mourned for all these years. The text informs us that Yosef was crying. However the Torah does not tell us what Ya’akov was doing. Rashi explains that Ya’akov was saying the Sh’ma. This seems strange: Ya’akov has not seen his beloved son in all these years. Why is this the proper time to say the Sh’ma?
The answer is that Ya’akov felt such a profound sense of love at that moment that he wished to direct his feeling toward heaven. The Sh’ma contains the phrase: Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your possessions. Ya’akov knew how to draw from the emotional feelings in his personal relationships and utilize them in his relationship with God.
Now we may understand the teaching of Rambam. The most intense love which people ever experience is the love of a spouse – a “soul-mate.” This loving relationship forms the basis of the entire spiritual personality, and becomes a vehicle through which a person can reach the highest level of religious accomplishment.