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The Great Rule of Torah

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's Torah portion, we find the famous imperative, "Love your fellow as yourself, I am God" (Leviticus 19:18). Rashi (on Torat Kohanim) cites Rebbe Akiva, who said of this mitzvah, "This is a great principle in Torah" (Zeh klal gadol baTorah). From these few words, a number of questions come to mind:


  1. Why does the verse, "Love your neighbor as yourself" conclude with the words, "I am God"? (This question can be asked every time a verse concludes with the words, "I am God," but for now, we will focus on this verse.) The implication of this statement is, "I am God who commands you to do this mitzvah." Surely we know by now, more than halfway through the Torah, that we perform mitzvot because they are the will of God! What does this statement mean?



  2. What does Rebbe Akiva mean when he says, "This is a great principle in Torah"? Since when do our Sages rate the mitzvot?



  3. Rashi, in many other places, explains that the statement, "I am God" comes to teach us that God is "ne'eman l'shalem s'khar" - that He is believed to pay reward. Why does Rashi use the word "ne'eman," which implies belief, instead of the seemingly more appropriate word "batuach" (sure)? Divinely-allotted reward and punishment is not dependent on our belief; it is guaranteed! Why not say so?


Maimonides suggests an idea that will help us resolve these difficulties. He states that two people can perform exactly the same mitzvah, yet be granted entirely different amounts of Heavenly reward. How is this fair? Maimonides explains that one person may have performed the mitzvah with great difficulty, whereas the other person may not have been challenged by it at all. A simple example is with the mitzvah of tzedaka (charity). A rich person who gives a dollar to a needy individual is judged quite differently than a person who is struggling to get by, yet still manages to scrape together a dollar to give to charity. We are rewarded according to the level of effort we put into our performance of mitzvot and the level of difficulty this entails.

Now we can answer our third question. Rashi says that God is believed to pay reward, rather than saying He is guaranteed to do so, because we must believe that God takes into consideration the effort we put into our mitzvot. Although the actions themselves do have inherent value, the level of difficulty for us in performing them leads to differing levels of spiritual reward. There is no way we could ever empirically compute this - so we must believe that God knows how to combine all the variables and reward us fairly.


* * *



In order to answer our two remaining questions, we must explore the accepted concept among philosophers that love can exist between people only when they have many things in common. The Tiferet Shmuel (vol. 1) explains that, based on this idea, one might mistakenly think that it would be difficult for great leaders and scholars to love common, ordinary people. If love depends on similarity, how could a scholar who spends his days delving into the intricacies of Jewish texts possibly cultivate love for the average person? What does an accomplished scholar have in common with a ditch-digger?

Although it is true that common ground helps people build relationships, Judaism rejects the hierarchical underpinnings of this idea. The Torah says of Moses that he was the greatest prophet who ever lived (Deut. 34:10), and also that he was the humblest person on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3). These seem like contradictory statements. Didn't Moses realize he towered over everyone else? How could he be humble?

The Tiferet Shmuel explains that, although Moses recognized his unique capabilities, he viewed everyone within the context of their circumstances. When meeting an average person, Moses would think, "Perhaps the five minutes of Torah learning that this water carrier squeezes into the end of his exhausting day are more precious to God than all my achievements!" In this way, Moses maintained his humility.

This is exactly Maimonides’ point that we mentioned earlier - that God evaluates the effort it takes to perform a mitzvah. There is no way for us to know whose effort is worth more or less. Every learned person must try to adopt Moses's attitude of humility, and think, "Perhaps this simple, ordinary person is actually greater than me in God's eyes. Perhaps his effort is worth more."

The Tiferet Shmuel thus understands the command, "Love your fellow as yourself," to be addressing the leaders and scholars. God tells them, "Love everyone - even average people - as yourself." If the scholar claims that such love is impossible because of the vast differences between him and the average person, God concludes the command with the words, "I am God" - in other words, "I am the one who assigns reward." Why should the scholar assume that he is on a higher level than the average person? The average person might be equal or greater because of the effort he invested!

This answers our first question. The verse, "Love your fellow as yourself" does not conclude with the words, "I am God" in order to identify God as the source of the mitzvah. Rather, these words teach us that God can be trusted and believed to reward people according to their effort. This also answers our second question. Rebbe Akiva is not rating or ranking this mitzvah. Rather, his statement must be read as follows: Zeh klal... Gadol b'Torah. In other words, "This principle [is intended for those who are] great in Torah"! The principle "Love your fellow as yourself" is especially relevant to those great scholars who might be tempted to think that they have little in common with the average person.

May we all be blessed to make a shift in our thinking and approach each person we meet with the thought, "How would I fare if I were in his shoes?" May we merit to see the atmosphere of camaraderie and love that will arise from this perspective, and may we thus deserve to experience the world coming full circle and returning to its state of paradise.

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