Torah on One Foot
I would like to try to explain a very strange statement in the Talmud. A Roman approached the great sage Shammai and said that he would like to convert to Judaism on condition that he is taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai promptly ejected the Roman from his house, and frankly, I would have done the same.
However, this man came to Hillel, Shammai’s colleague and good friend, albeit one with whom he strongly disagreed very often. The Roman said, “Teach me Judaism while standing on one foot.” And Hillel said, “No problem”. Hillel then went on to say “That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your friend, the rest [of the Torah] is commentary, go and learn.”
Now granted this rule is very important and very central, but how exactly is all of Judaism a commentary on this rule? The Torah forbids eating lobster, obligates us to fast on Yom Kippur. There are so many laws of the Torah, and Judaism is so complex and broad, how is it possible to say that all of Judaism is a commentary on “that which is hateful unto to you, do not do to your fellow man”??
Perhaps this can be explained based on a Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers which states that the world stands on three things: the study of Torah, prayers and kindness to others.
The Maharal, (and I am taking some liberty in my interpretation, but I think and hope that the Maharal might agree with me). Each one of these is a category of relationship. The study of Torah is the relationship to one’s own soul. Prayer is our relationship with G-d, through our conversation with Him. Kindness to others is clearly the category of relationships with other people.
The Maharal maintains that the Mishnah is telling us that human was created to develop relationships. To develop a relationship with his own soul, with his Creator, and with his fellow humans. So we could actually, loosely divide the Torah’s commandments into three sections: Mitzvot bein adam le-atzmo – the commandments between a person and themselves, mitzvot bein adam la-Makom – the commandments between a person and G-d, Mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro – and the commandments between a person and his friend.
Now, Hillel said, “that which is hateful unto you don’t do unto your friend.” I would like to suggest, as is alluded to in Rashi, the great commentary from 11th Century France, that friend has to be understood in a bit of a broader way than just your fellow person. First of all, G-d is called, our Friend, our Beloved. The entire Biblical book of Song of Songs describes G-d and the Jewish people as a man and woman in love. G-d is called “our beloved” One friend to which Hillel refers is G-d Himself. Clearly also my fellow human being is another form of friend. Our soul is also our friend, and our closest companion.
So really, what Hillel is saying is that if conducted our lives such that every decision we made and every step we took, we always took into account our “friends”, meaning G-d, the soul, and the other person, we would be fulfilling the entire Torah. Everything in the Torah is a commentary on how to live your life with a sensitivity toward all there of our relationships. That is what Hillel meant by saying that which is hateful unto you, don’t do unto your friend. The rest is commentary, go and learn.