Setting Ourselves up for Success

Dena Weiss

Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

One of the most central demands of the Torah is also one of its most difficult. VaYikra 19:18 teaches וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. R. Akiva is quoted throughout Rabbinic literature as characterizing this commandment as כלל גדול בתורה, the great and all-encompassing principle of the Torah.1 Whereas its importance is indisputable, its achievability is much more questionable. Is the Torah legislating our emotions? Are we really being asked to love one another at such a high level? The great sage Hillel teaches us about how to apply this precept to our own lives and he demonstrates a strategy for achieving this and other religious and spiritual goals, including those that can seem almost unattainable.

Hillel’s teaching about loving your neighbor appears in the Talmud, in Massekhet Shabbat. It forms part of a series of stories which highlight the differences in temperament between Hillel and his friend, colleague, and foil, Shammai. In each of the stories we see Hillel being accommodating and understanding, whereas Shammai is uncompromising and staunchly principled. Shammai is impatient and becomes indignant, but Hillel never gets angry.

תלמוד בבלי שבת לא.
שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי - אמר לו גיירני על מנת שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת - דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו.
בא לפני הלל- גייריה. אמר לו - דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד. זו היא כל התורה כולה - ואידך פירושה הוא - זיל גמור. 


Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a
There was another story about a non-Jewish person who came before Shammai. He said to him: Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot (regel).
[Shammai] pushed him with the contractor’s ruler (regula) that was in his hand.
[The non-Jewish person] came before Hillel, and he converted him. [Hillel] said to him: That which is hated by you, you may not do to your friend. This is the entirety of the Torah and everything else is its interpretation. Go and learn.


Shammai’s reaction to the potential convert is to push him away. According to Shammai it is impossible to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The Torah is too vast and too demanding, and one can only stand on one foot for so long. In the Talmud’s description Shammai employs a pun in chasing away this man. The man requested to be taught on one foot, and Shammai dismisses him with a ruler, which in Hebrew is an amah, an arm. There is also a cross language pun, the man wants to stand on his foot, his regel, and Shammai chases him away with his ruler, which in Latin is a regula.2 This sets up the reader for understanding that Hillel will also employ a pun, but one that works in favor of the potential convert.

Hillel heard the identical request of this man to learn the whole Torah while standing on a single regel. Yet Hillel deliberately reinterprets what he hears. On its face, it is a request for speed and an expression of impatience. The potential convert is only willing to be taught for as long as a person can remain balanced on one foot. Just as the foot is the literal, physical foundation of the body, similarly in Hebrew, regel can refer to anything that is a foundation: Hillel interprets regel in its more abstract sense, as a principle. He teaches the potential convert a single idea, what Rabbi Akiva later3 understands to be the foundational principle of the Torah, to treat others as you would like to be treated.4

However, Hillel doesn’t only translate the words of the Torah from the Hebrew into Aramaic; he also changes the commandment from the positive to the negative, thereby limiting its scope. The verse in the Torah teaches,

ויקרא יט:יח
לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה':


VaYikra 19:18
Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge against the members of your people. And love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.


The verse appears to demand active, strong and true love, whereas Hillel transforms the commandment in two ways through his reformulation: “That which is hated by you, you may not do to your friend.” The first change that he makes is to move away from love to “not-hate.” You are no longer commanded to love your neighbor, it is sufficient to merely refrain from hating him. The second shift is that the area of love is no longer a place of emotion and feeling, but rather a place of action: feeling hateful is not the problem. What is problematic is acting in a hateful way.

Hillel is able to make these two shifts by employing a different understanding of the way that the two halves of the verse relate to each other. In the initial reading of the verse, which appears to mandate emotion, you must love your neighbor—therefore you may not take revenge on him or treat him with resentment. Loving your neighbor is the primary commandment from which the secondary prohibition not to take revenge flows. The way that Hillel reads this verse וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is not a commandment that produces a prohibition. Rather וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is a promise that you will inevitably love your neighbor as yourself as a consequence of treating him in a loving way. Don’t do back to him the hateful things that he has done to you. And if you can’t do hateful things to someone who, in some sense, deserves them, you obviously may not treat an innocent friend in a bad way. If you follow the guidance of not engaging in spiteful behavior, then you will automatically be loving your neighbor as yourself.

Hillel’s reading is empowering. He is suggesting that you can harness the negative feeling of hatred instead of quashing it. How are you going to know how to treat other people in accordance with the way you would like to be treated if you aren’t aware of your own likes and dislikes? If you pretend that you love everyone and everything, according to Hillel, you will not succeed. Loving others as you love yourself, wanting them to have what you don’t, is too hard: it is not realistic and you simply will not be able to do it. Hillel instead prescribes using your negative instincts to guide you to positive behavior. When you feel the urge to damage someone else, think, “Would I like it if someone else damaged me in that way?” And if the answer is no, then it is sufficient for you not to do it. The promise is that, in the end, this will be considered love and—just maybe—you will come to feel love as a result of your actions.

The Dubner Maggid’s5 creative and insightful reading of Hillel’s teaching gives us another window into Hillel’s strategy for achieving peace and love. Hillel said, דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד, “That which is hated by you, you may not do to your friend.” The last verb, לא תעביד, “you may not do,” can also be translated as, “you may not make.” So, his rereading of Hillel’s directive is: “The one which is hateful to you, do not make into your friend.” To the Maggid, the one who is hateful to you is your yetzer hara, your inner inclination to do wrong. But, in truth, anyone you hate or even find difficult to be around is a yetzer hara for you and inclines you to treat them poorly. It is difficult to display a loving demeanor, let alone feel a positive feeling, towards someone who is presently infuriating or annoying you.

This is the secret to truly uncovering Hillel’s wisdom. He is coaching you in how to clear away the obstacles that might lead you to fail. Our parashah also teaches, וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל and do not place an obstacle before a blind person (VaYikra 19:14). Sometimes we are the blind people, and it is incumbent upon us to set ourselves up for success instead of failure. To make it easier, rather than more difficult, to act in our best interest. To not go shopping when we need to save money, to not buy ice cream when we’re trying to lose weight, and to spend less time with the people whom we are likely to mistreat, rather than try to force ourselves to like them.

This theme repeats itself in the context of yet another commandment found in this week’s parashah: The Torah prohibits consuming the blood of animals since the blood is where the life of the animal resides.6 In addition to this prohibition the Torah also requires that blood of animals that have been slaughtered be covered with dirt.7 The Rashbam8 explains that this second commandment to cover the blood is designed to protect and reinforce the original prohibition against ingesting blood. If the blood is mixed with dirt, you won’t eat it. Instead of leaving you to your own self-restraint, the Torah commands you to make the blood unappealing in order to assure that you won’t be tempted by it.

A closer reading of the story of Hillel and Shammai shows that not only did Shammai push this potential convert away, Hillel pushed him away as well. Although Hillel did indeed convert this person, he did not take him on as a student. Instead, Hillel said to him, “זיל גמור, go and learn.” You can learn all of the Torah that you want, but you will not learn it here, and you will not be taught by me. Even more than Hillel was kind, Hillel was realistic. He did not invite the student to stay in his presence. He gently, but unambiguously, encourages this man to be on his way.

Hillel’s pragmatism follows a venerable model first displayed by our forefathers. When a dispute arises between Avraham’s shepherds and the shepherds employed by Avraham’s nephew Lot, Avraham does not try to resolve the dispute; Avraham does not attempt to make these two groups love each other. Instead, he firmly and kindly separates himself from his nephew.9 Avraham still loves his nephew, and their bond saves Lot’s life twice,10 but Avraham concludes that if there is going to be peace between their two families, there would also need to be distance.

Avraham’s son, Yitzhak, also employs the strategy of distance in order to keep peace with his neighbors. After Yitzhak moves to Gerar, his wealth inspires jealousy, and his Philistine neighbors repeatedly stop up his wells. Yitzhak does not find peace until he moves away,

בראשית כו:כב
וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם וַיַּחְפֹּר בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת וְלֹא רָבוּ עָלֶיהָ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ רְחֹבוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי עַתָּה הִרְחִיב ה' לָנוּ וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ:


Bereishit 26:22
He moved away from there, and he dug a different well, and they didn’t fight over it. He called it Rehovot, and he said, now God will deal expansively with us (hirhiv) and we will thrive in the land.


Only when Yitzhak experiences distance from his neighbors is he free from strife with them. He never truly reconciles with his enemies, rather he moves away from them. He commemorates this newfound state of peace by naming the well Rehovot, after the expanse that now exists between him and his enemies.

Ya’akov also moves away from his father-in-law when he sees that Lavan is no longer pleased with him, and he refuses his brother Esav’s attempt to reconcile and live together.11 Ya’akov knows that the happiness and well-being of his family depends on maintaining a healthy distance from his brother. Yet when it comes to his own children, Ya’akov tries to resist this fact, sending Yosef out to spend more time with his brothers, even though Ya’akov knows that the brothers hate Yosef.12 Had Ya’akov encouraged Yosef to leave his brothers alone, instead of encouraging him to befriend them, Yosef would have been spared the ordeal of slavery, and his brothers would have been spared the sin of trying to kill and sell their brother.

We need to make separations between ourselves and the conditions which make being our best selves hard or impossible. This is not limited to our relationships with difficult people.13 Hillel’s strategy is paradigmatic of what we need to do in order to be successful in all areas of our lives. Willpower is often not enough to enable us to refrain from bad behavior, and to rely on it is to imperil ourselves. Temptation and conflict thrive on proximity and availability. Manipulating our environment in a way that maximizes being surrounded by the people we want to be close to and the things that we want around us is not a form of weakness. It is a part of our toolkit for remaining in control. It is a critical strategy, and often it is the only one that will work.

Wishing you a Shabbat with good fences and good neighbors.

1 See for example תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא), נדרים, ל, ב.

2 See Warren Zev Harvey, “Love: The Beginning and the End of Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought Vol. 15, No. 4 (Spring 1976), p. 5, n. 1.

3 Hillel precedes R. Akiva by a number of generations. It is not clear, however, that this story about Hillel precedes the teaching of R. Akiva.

4 While the story never explicitly acknowledges that Hillel is paraphrasing this verse in the Torah, this is the common understanding and is underscored by the fact that the Targum Pseudo-Yonatan’s rendering of this verse in Aramaic is almost exactly Hillel’s formulation.

5 Jacob ben Wolf Kranz of Dubno, 1740-1804, Poland.

6 VaYikra 17:11.

7 VaYikra 17:13.

8 R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France.

9 See Bereishit 13:1-12.

10 Bereishit 14 and 19.

11 Bereishit 33:12-15.

12 Bereishit 37.

13 It’s important to stress that Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov never acted cruelly towards the people they were avoiding. So too, Hillel’s convert felt validated; he did not feel cast away. Constructing a healthy and realistic amount of distance needs to remain in the service of loving your neighbor and is not about cutting people out of our lives or entirely freezing communication. It’s about assessing: What is the maximum amount of time we can spend together that will enable me to act in the maximally loving manner towards you?