One of the most important and perhaps the most well-known mitzvot is, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” Love your fellow as yourself. As the great Rabbi Akiva famously stated, “זה כלל גדול בתורה” – this is a fundamental of the Torah.
Oddly enough, for some reason, the last two words of the verse didn’t quite make it to the top of the charts and are often forgotten “אני ה׳” – I am G-d. These last words seem to be misplaced. What is the Torah trying to stress by concluding the command of fraternal love with an affirmation of belief in G-d?
Sefat Emet asks, where do we find a positive mitzvah to love oneself in the Torah, that we are then commanded to use the self as a yardstick and love others to the same degree?
Rabbi Shimon Shkop suggests that the Torah is affirming one of the fundamental tenets of psychology and human nature: The self-hater cannot feel genuine love for others. In other words, it is not so much that self-love is a benchmark for loving others; it’s a prerequisite. In this context, when we speak of self-love, what we mean is having a positive self-image or otherwise commonly referred to as self-esteem.
“You can only love your fellow as yourself.” In order to be able to radiate warmth and love to others, we must first learn to love ourselves.
On the other hand, while perhaps a prerequisite to loving others, healthy self-esteem is by no means a guarantee to loving others. On the contrary, it is all too easy to cross the line from self-esteem to self-adoration and self-importance.
One who loves oneself to the extent that he is blind to his faults and shortcomings may find it challenging to find others perfect enough to be “worthy” of his love. By being honest with ourselves and acknowledging our deficiencies and imperfections, consciously reminding ourselves that just as we accept and love ourselves despite our faults, we can love our fellow unconditionally, despite their shortcomings.
Perhaps that is the meaning of the last words in the verse “You shall love your fellow as yourself – I am G-d.” To remind us that only G-d is perfect and yet loves us unconditionally with our imperfections, so too we must love our fellow like ourselves, shortcomings included.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay