Rabbi Akiva’s Essential Verse Of Torah
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Rabbi Akiva’s Essential Verse Of Torah

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:27 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 19:1-20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz); Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 8:30 p.m.

Rabbi Akiva stated that the greatest principle in the Torah is found in today’s Torah reading: “You should love your friend as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18]. There are other commandments that could have been pointed to by Rabbi Akiva that might have also made the top choice for greatness: “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of God.” Or the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Or, “…I have placed life and death before you … and you shall choose life.” Or, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Why did Rabbi Akiva choose the one he did?

Let me suggest a reason that is reflected in human nature. We are told by our Sages that the human being enters this world with the Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination, in place. He doesn’t acquire the Yetzer HaTov, the inclination to do good, until he reaches the age of majority (12 for a girl, 13 for a boy). We can observe this readily in babies and young children who generally are very self-centered and think primarily of themselves: grabbing a toy from another, whining when they don’t get what they want immediately, and generally exhibiting selfishness. “I want what I want, when I want it.” The novel “Lord of the Flies” demonstrated how boys who try to govern themselves exhibit the human trait of choosing individual welfare over the common good.

The Torah is the antidote to the Yetzer HaRah. As we mature we find that most sins are based on satisfying our own needs and desires. Stealing, murder, lust, eating forbidden foods, etc., all have the common characteristic of satisfying our Yetzer HaRah, exhibited in narcissism and selfishness. Once we begin to break away from this self-indulgence, we are on the road that the Torah is guiding us.

The verse cited by Rabbi Akiva reads “V’ahavta l’raiachah kamochah.” It could have read “V’ahavta raiachah kamochah.” Why the letter lamed (the “l” in l’raiacha), the love of yourself extending to your friend? The Torah understands human nature: L’raiachah, taking small first steps.

Rabbi Akiva understood this, and that is why he called this commandment “Clal Gadol ba’Torah,” the “Great Principle in the Torah.”

We are now in the Sefirah period, counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. We are told that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died of a plague because although they were learned and observed the mitzvot, they did not treat each other with respect [Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 62B]. Again, here is the negative trait of egoism taking over. In each of the 12,000 chavrutot (pairs who would learn Torah together), each individual demanded that when there was a disagreement in their Talmud discussions, there was no need to honor the other’s point of view. This led to the tragedy of the whole contingent being wiped out. But how was it possible that their great teacher Rabbi Akiva, who called the principle of loving your friend the Clal Gadol, the Great Principle, have students who totally disregarded this principle? The answer may be that Rabbi Akiva reached this conclusion after the tragic event.

The Talmud in Yevamot tells us that the world became desolate after the deaths until Rabbi Akiva taught five new outstanding students and the Torah was revived. And we can assume the “Love your friend as yourself” principle was prominently displayed in their Beit Midrash.

Finally, we understand that the whole world knows this Golden Rule. But if you pay attention to this Shabbat’s Torah reading, you will see that it is repeated a second time, sixteen verses later with only the middle word changed.

In discussing how we are to treat the ger, the stranger, we are told: “V’Ahavata Oto Kamocha” [Lev. 19:34], you should love him as yourself. The stranger is not called a raya, a friend, but is referred to simply as “him.” The Torah understands that the ger, the stranger, may not be your friend. After all, he may speak with an accent, his culinary tastes are different than yours, he may be wearing a shtreimel or a kipa serugah (knitted yarmulke) or be bare-headed. Nevertheless we are adjured to love him as yourself, to reach out to him. It matters not whether the individual is a friend or a complete stranger. Rabbi Akiva’s great principle remains as the basis of all of Torah.

If we can remember this lesson during these 49 days of counting, a period that through much of Jewish history has been a time of tragedy, if Ahavat Chinam (causeless love) can replace Sinat Chinam (causeless hatred), then the End of Days with the coming of the Messiah may soon be here. And so may it be God’s will, reflected in our actions.

Fred Ehrman is an investment adviser in New York. He has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily-page study of the Talmud.

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