I am proud of my large library of Jewish books. My collection, which my wife half-jokingly refers to as my addiction, began on my 11th birthday with a gift from my maternal grandparents, may they rest in peace. They bought me the then recently published Shulzinger edition of the Five Books of Moses surrounded by numerous traditional commentaries. Those volumes became the cornerstone of my personal library of many hundreds of Judaic works on the Bible, the Talmud, philosophy, history, and codes of law.
These books line the walls of my private study from floor to ceiling.
Over the years, I have had many visitors who were struck by the overwhelming number of books and who reacted with awe and curiosity. Some, particularly non-Jews, would ask, “Have you read all of these?” When I confessed that I hadn’t read more than very few of them, they often proceeded with yet another question:
“What are they all about? Why are so many books necessary just to explain one religion?” They could not fathom why so much commentary was written on just a few basic biblical texts.
Often, as I responded to their inquiries, I found myself resorting to an old story of one of our greatest sages, Hillel. To most of you, this story is probably well-known, perhaps even trite. But for many of my visitors, the story was novel, instructive, and almost revelatory.
In this story, Hillel, known for his scholarship and commitment to Torah study but particularly famous for his patience, is provocatively challenged by a heathen who demands to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel accepts the challenge and says, “What is hateful to you do not do unto others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is but commentary. Now go out and study the commentary.”
I would then explain to my visitors that Hillel’s remark was based upon a verse in this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. There, in Leviticus 19:18, we read, “and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Now, I would continue, loving one’s neighbor as oneself is no easy task. We are likely to have numerous and diverse neighbors in the course of a lifetime, and myriad circumstances arise which pose great barriers to our love for them. And so, Jewish scholars throughout the ages have recorded their advice, suggestions, and guidelines for just how to love one’s neighbor in every conceivable context and condition. That’s what all these books are about, and that’s why we need so many of them.
Note that Hillel himself does not choose to use the Torah’s original phrase to explain the essence of Judaism to the heathen. He does not say, “Love your neighbor.” Rather, he says, “Do not harm your neighbor.” Perhaps this is because, as the medieval commentator Ramban suggests, loving one’s neighbor as oneself is an exaggerated expectation, just too tall an order, and the most Hillel could do was to urge the heathen to do no harm.
Whether one uses the biblical formulation commanding us to love our neighbor, or chooses Hillel’s version which asks us to refrain from harming him or her in a way in which we ourselves would not want to be harmed, the essence of our Torah is this ethical imperative. And the many hundreds of volumes in my personal library, and the hundreds of thousands of similar tomes written throughout the centuries, can all be understood as the constant and perpetual struggle of our sages to develop a “database” sufficient to enable us to realize this ethical imperative.
One such commentary deserves mention in our age and culture, which has been diagnosed as narcissistic, as overly self-loving.
This commentary takes the form of a story about a disciple of Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk who eavesdropped upon his master as the latter was reviewing this week’s Torah portion aloud. Rabbi Mendel read, “and thou shalt love thy neighbor — as yourself? Yes, as yourself!” First as a question, and then as a forceful declaration.
The disciple was puzzled by the manner in which his master read the passage. He asked the master’s chief disciple, Reb Hershel, for an explanation. This was his answer:
“The master first asked a question. Can it be that we are asked to love our neighbor as ourselves? Are we to understand that it is permissible to love oneself? Is it not a basic teaching here in Kotzk that one dare not love oneself, lest he thereby become blind to his own faults?” In our terminology, Rabbi Mendel could not accept the slightest suggestion that narcissism was acceptable.
“Then the master realized a deeper meaning of the verse. Namely, we ought to love our neighbor to the same extent that we are critical of ourselves. The mitzvah is that we put in as much effort loving our neighbor as the effort that we should be investing in our own personal spiritual and moral perfection.”
In an age of “me first,” it is even more important that we direct love outwards towards the other, not inward toward ourselves. We must, at all costs, avoid self-adulation and self-worship.
That is one sample of the vast treasure of commentary that is in our Jewish library. No wonder that our Sages refer to the “ocean of the Talmud,” and to our Torah as deeper than the sea.