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On One Foot

A famous story is told of the sage Hillel. He was approached by a persistent individual who asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel, known for his great forbearance, did not eject the audacious questioner. Rather, he responded with this pithy statement: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the basis of the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary."

Apparently, according to the story, the questioner was satisfied with this response. However, in essence, Hillel's reply seems curious. True, it's important to treat one's fellow the way one wishes to be treated. But how is this the basis of the entire Torah? What connection is there between keeping Shabbat or laying tefillin, for example, and honoring one another?                     

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Before answering this question, let's explain why this story is particularly relevant at this time of year. Of course, maintaining positive relationships with others is relevant at any time of year. However, we are now in a period known as Sefirat Haomer, the seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot. According to tradition, during this period a plague struck the students of the sage Rabbi Akiva in which twenty-four thousand students died. The Mishnah attributes their death to their lack of respect for one another.

To commemorate that tragic episode, our sages enacted several mourning customs that are in force during this time. For example, it is customary not to cut hair or hold weddings during these weeks. An important part of the commemoration is to internalize the lesson--to treat others with respect, even those who hold different viewpoints. And not only to respect them, but to love them, as the Torah says, "And you shall love your fellow as yourself." 

A special emphasis on loving one's fellow is placed on the 33rd day of the Omer, which will fall on the upcoming Sunday. On this day we are joyous for two reasons: It is the day the plague ceased (according to one opinion), and it is also the day of the passing of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar. Before his death he requested of his students to celebrate the day as a time when his soul ascended to heaven after completing its mission on earth. In particular, Rabbi Shimon was known for his outstanding love of his fellow man, and he was one of the few students of Rabbi Akiva to be saved from the plague.

To mark the day of Lag b'Omer, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted the custom of holding a parade for Jewish children, under the slogan of "Jewish Children United." This is the central message of the day--to become permeated with closeness and unity, in the spirit of the Torah.                                                        

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This brings us back to Hillel's statement. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of Zohar, explains at length how love of our fellow is indeed the basis of the entire Torah.

Before the world existed, there was G-d, the Jewish people and the Torah. G-d gave the Jewish people the Torah as a means to connect with Him. And through following the Torah, we also become connected with each other. It gives us the means to transcend our own personal considerations and unite in one common, overriding goal. The only true way to experience absolute unity is through fulfilling the Torah. Otherwise we have no way of surmounting the artificial barriers that separate us from one another.

The ultimate state of unity will be reached with the true and complete Redemption. Then we will all fulfill the Torah and will be elevated above whatever divides us.

 

 


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