The Mitzvah of “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha” took on a particular meaning to me when I saw the perfect display of this commandment before my own two eyes. I was an advisor on the “Central East” region for NCSY Shabbatons during my last year of study at Yeshiva University. At the end of the last Shabbaton of the year, the “regional board,” or student council, members for the upcoming year would be announced. The teens who applied for positions on regional board took this as seriously as any competition gets. Without exaggeration, being elected to regional board is a dream come true for NCSY teens. As they began to announce the new members of regional board, two best friends, “Reuven and Shimon,” were anxiously waiting to be elected together. Having grown up as best friends, Reuven and Shimon had always dreamed of being on regional board together during their senior year of high school. They literally stood, arm and arm, looking forward to receiving leadership positions side by side. However, as the winners were being called up, it became clear that only one spot was left. In fact, Reuven was called up to receive the final spot, and I stood directly in back of these two friends as they cried into each other’s arms. Reuven was certainly happy to be elected to regional board, but he could not bear the thought of winning at Shimon’s expense. Shimon was certainly sad to not get elected but was undoubtedly happy for his best friend Reuven. Both friends had each other’s best interests in mind. This is the Mitzvah of “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha.”
Ramban (VaYikra 18:18 s.v. “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha”) asserts that the Torah is not meant to be understood literally when it commands us to “love your fellow like yourself” because that is simply impossible. Rather, the Torah is commanding us to genuinely want others to be successful to the same degree as we want ourselves to be successful. One practical application of this comment of Ramban comes up in the classroom frequently. Specifically, when a student receives a ninety-eight on a test, he should not only be happy for his friend who received a ninety-five, knowing that he received the higher score, but he should also be genuinely happy for those friends who scored equally or higher than he did on the exam. Rambam (Positive Commandment 206) seems to agree with Ramban’s understanding of the Mitzvah, as he writes that “Whatever we want for ourselves, we should also want for our fellows, and whatever we would hate to happen to ourselves, we should hate for it to fall upon our fellows as well.” In summary, both Rambam and Ramban do not understand the Pasuk literally; rather, they believe that the Torah is telling us to want for others that which we would want for ourselves.
This interpretation of the Mitzvah certainly relates to the deaths of Rabi Akiva’s students which we are currently commemorating. The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah Chayei Sara 61) tells us that Rabi Akiva’s students were punished in response to their “Tzarot Ayin,” a narrowing of the eye. This means that each student did not appreciate his peers’ successes but rather hoped for his peers to fall as he personally advanced. The Midrash records that Rabi Akiva specifically instructed his new students to not make the same mistake that his students who had perished made. As we experience the Sefirat HaOmer period, we are encouraged to rejoice for our fellow Jew and not repeat the mistake of Rabi Akiva’s students. Although this is a challenging Mitzvah, it is attainable.
The more well-known connection between Rabi Akiva and the Mitzvah of “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha” is his statement that this is a “Kelal Gadol BaTorah,” an “important rule in the Torah” (Sifra Kedoshim Parashah 2 Perek 4). At first glance, all Rabi Akiva seems to be saying is that this Mitzvah has a particular significance in its “ranking” out of the six hundred thirteen Mitzvot. In fact, the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 243) explains this statement to mean that if one properly performs this Mitzvah, many other Mitzvot will be easy to perform. Specifically, if one truly loves his fellow, he would never come to steal or harm another person in any way. However, the Chatam Sofer offers a penetrating insight into this famous statement of Rabi Akiva as he narrows in on the word “BaTorah.” The Chatam Sofer explains that loving one’s fellow has particular significance in relationship to the Mitzvah of Torah study. He writes that a Rebbi must love his students as he loves himself and take away from his own personal growth for the sake of his students. It is the responsibility of the Torah educator to equate the success of his students with his own accomplishments in Torah. This means that every Torah educator must be willing to take the time and quality away from his own personal Torah study in order to properly educate his students. The ideal Rebbe is torn between personal learning goals and the needs of the Talmidim. Both goals must lead to the same sense of accomplishment.