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What's A Mitzvah Without Love? Bookmark and Share
What's A Mitzvah Without Love?
By: Simon Jacobson

Most of us are familiar with the story in the Talmud of the man who asks the sage Hillel to teach him the entire Torah standing on one foot. Hillel replies with a cardinal law: "Don't do unto others what you don't want done to yourself. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary." In essence, Hillel is saying that the entire Torah is love. Love for your fellow.

Sounds simple enough. But upon perusal, Hillel's words are perplexing. Anyone familiar with Torah knows that a large part of the Torah does not seem to be related to love in any overt way. For example, the laws of eating kosher, prayer, Temple offerings, the laws of purity and impurity, have no connection with loving others. Only laws between man and man – love your neighbor, charity, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, the laws of being kind and generous – are expressions of love. So what does Hillel mean when he says that the entire Torah is love?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains in his classic work, the Tanya (chapter 32), that the entire Torah aims to establish the supremacy of the soul over the body; spirit over matter; quality over quantity; and thereby manifest G-dliness in the world. Instead of our physical desires and needs being the driving force in our lives, the soul should be the driving force and the body its vehicle.

This is the essence of true love. How can two distinct people love each other selflessly when they each have their own individual needs and interests?

Because love is about transcending the separation inherent in our material lives and accessing the unity of our spiritual souls. Only when we establish the prominence of spirit over matter, when the soul is primary and the body secondary, only then is true love possible.

Why? Because the first law of physicality is that the corporeal, the material, by its very nature must occupy time and space. And so, one physical entity must preclude another from occupying its place. I must get out of my seat to allow you to sit in it. You have less food if you share part of it with another. Spirituality, on the other hand, by its very nature transcends physical time and space, allowing two people to share, to unite, to love unconditionally. By the law of "spiritual nature" I do not become less if I give to you, I actually become more.

This is the meaning of Hillel's words, that loving your fellow is "the entire Torah." Hillel is actually giving us a profound insight into the nature of both love and Torah: True love is not the narcissistic, selfish fulfillment of one's needs. Love is transcendent: the mastery of spirit over matter, of soul over body. And "this is the entire Torah": the love for one another resulting from establishing the supremacy of the uniting spirit over divisive bodies.

The implications of Hillel's words are far-reaching: You cannot really have Torah if you do not have love. Yes, you can technically perform all of Torah and mitzvot, but entirely miss its spirit: the love and warmth it generates. A mitzvah without love is an oxymoron, because a mitzvah is love. When a mitzvah is done in a way that doesn't foster love of others it desecrates G-d. The Ramban explains that we are specifically forbidden to be obnoxious in the name of Torah. The midrash puts it succinctly: "V'oahavto es Hashem Elokecho" in the Shema prayer means Make G-d beloved in the eyes of others by your own behavior.

Every mitzvah – whether between man and man or between man and G-d – must train us to be less selfish and more sensitive. Saying a blessing on food, for example, gives us a pause to acknowledge that a meal is not an act of self-indulgence and we don't eat just for physical sustenance. The meal should be an exercise in self-refinement: We elevate the food and use its energy to be more constructive and productive in our lives. Shabbat sensitizes us to the recognition that after six days of immersion in the material, we need to assert the dominance of our spiritual lives.

Every mitzvah essentially should make us warmer, more caring individuals, by teaching us how to recognize and connect to the G-dly within. Each mitzvah creates spiritual dominance in its respective area of life, allowing the transcendence and love to permeate every aspect of our lives: when we awake, when we sleep, when we eat, when we love, when we work and when we play.

Our main task is to understand that love of Torah and love of G-d is one with love of others. By doing mitzvot with pure love, we will ultimately actualize our greater spiritual selves: our souls, who have never left the world of love.

Rabbi Simon Jacobson is author of the international best-seller Toward a Meaningful Life (William Morrow) and is director of The Meaningful Life Center. www.meaningfullife.com.