Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in Mesillas Yesharim, writes in his introduction that there is nothing in his sefer that people don’t know already–even though Mesillas Yesharim is one of the most important sifrei mussar (ethical works) of the past five hundred years. He explains that it contains information that is so obvious to people that it becomes like white noise, below the conscious level. That is why the message of Torah, of ben adam le’chavero can be repeated, upgraded, and repackaged year after year after year, and it becomes almost cliche, G-d forbid, as we become more desensitized with time. How many times have you seen titles for books, lectures, conventions boasting to demonstrate Judaism’s relevance in our day?
Are we really not sure that the Torah is relevant? Or have we become jaded to its message?
Yet, I’m always challenged when I try to connect to the significance and corresponding emotions of Tisha b’Av. There are a few ways to look at the day itself. You can do “outside-in” and ponder the destruction of the Temple, the terrible atrocities and persecution our people has had to suffer through the ages, and the current geopolitical reality which is fraught with danger. You can do “inside-out” and think about how our sins brought the destruction and subsequent exile into reality, and how they continue to do so. The latter is harder, but it is a route that is ultimately more responsible because it can lead to teshuva (repentance) and a commitment to positive change–and it places the focus where it should be, on the quality of our relationship with Hashem and with our fellow Jews.
The term sinas chinam (baseless hatred) gets repeated every year at this time, so much so that it has become white noise. But, my friends, we have to bring it back into the forefront of our minds, because it is something that each of us struggles with–and if it wasn’t, if it wasn’t an equal-opportunity problem, Chazal would not have identified it as the cause of the destruction of the Temple. Yes, you too have a problem with sinas chinam.
And you know what? I do too. As a matter of fact, I can think of something annoying, or downright absurd about every Jew on the planet. I can list all Jews by type and in the second column what I find most ridiculous about each and every one. When I get going, no one can escape my scrutiny, whether religious, secular or unidentified, all political groupings, appearances, accents, attitudes, mentalities, cuisines, educated or ignorant, Israel or Diaspora, alive or dead, rich or poor. I have the potential to hate all of them. I can take a veritable bath in negativity and stay there for life. And yet, I am a rabbi who espouses and strives towards the value of ahavas yisrael, love for every Jew, and I want to be totally free of this ugliness, because I know that I will not be able to experience a redemptive life so long as this is a part of my personality.
Because we know that the mitzvah of ahavas yisrael is singled out by Rabbi Akiva as a k’lal gadol batorah, I am going to focus on it, because its fulfillment is vital to nearly every mitzvah bein adam lechavero in the Torah.
We hear the term ahavas yisrael a lot, and it is a value that many of us place at the center of our Yiddishkeit, and rightly so. What do we really know about ahavas yisrael?
The gemara in Shabbos 31a tells the story of the potential convert who came to Hillel—after Shammai shoved him out with a measuring stick—and asked to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Now, when I breeze through this ma’aseh, I assume that the request itself is absurd, but when I slow down I realize that it contains a very deep question: what is the most singular, irreducible element of Judaism that pervades every aspect of it? Because if we can identify that element, we’ll have a more intuitive understanding of what it means to be a Jew. This person was probably faced, as we all are with that nagging uncertainty: is Judaism a checklist of rules and behaviors, an intellectual exercise, a mystical way of being, a system of ethics—what is it, at its very essence? When we have the answer to that question, we have a map for our journey through this world and the next.
And Hillel’s response was d’alach sanei al tavid lechavrach—whatever is displeasing to you, do not do to your fellow. Everyone identifies this with the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha, except that there is a problem: if Hillel meant to tell him that the “hub principle” of the entire Torah was that mitzvah, why didn’t he say, “v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha”? The Maharsha answers, that’s easy; Hillel didn’t speak Hebrew, nor did anyone else in Yerushalayim in his time. However, the Aramaic translation of v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha is v’tirachamei l’chavrach k’vasach, you shall love your fellow as yourself. Why did Hillel phrase his answer in the negative?
The Maharsha continues and says that the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha even though it is phrased in the positive, is really an injunction against doing anything that would be hurtful to one’s fellow man or woman, sort of a summary of all of the negative mitzvos bein adam lechavero in the Torah. Just like you wouldn’t want to be robbed or deceived, don’t rob or deceive someone else. Just as you don’t want to be insulted, don’t insult someone else. The Maharsha adds that kamocha can’t mean that you have to place everyone else on an equal par as you. After all, there is also a principle of chayecha kodem; if you are in a hot desert with another person, and there is only enough water to save one of you, you are not allowed to give up your life to save the other person.
I don’t know about you, but that just torpedoes my whole concept of ahavas yisrael, which is informed by my memories of people making sacrifices for others, or ma’asei tzaddikim, people who had every right to think only of their own survival, but instead considered the others around them. It is said about the previous Skverer Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky zt”l that he never drank plain water. It seems like an odd practice, but it was actually his way of doing teshuva. You see, when the camps were liberated and the Skverer Rebbe was on his way to freedom with a trainload of his fellow Jews, small amounts of water were given out—seemingly to everyone on board. The train was swelteringly hot. Because of his identity as a holy man, someone gave the Rebbe seconds, another cup of water, which he drank; he, like everyone else was on the verge of passing out. But later he learned that there were others on the train who did not receive even a first cup of water, and this tore his heart out. He could not live with what he did. So he stopped drinking water.
Why was this such a big deal? I forgot to mention that the Skverer Rebbe would not sit down on the train seats because he was afraid that the fabric cushions were woven from shaatnez. Yet he did not stand all the way up, because he did not want to cause anyone else to feel like they had to follow his lead. So he stood up in a sitting position as it were, something that was probably very painful after a while. The problem of shaatnez in seat cushions used to be a very widespread problem and someone like the Skverer Rebbe was not about to sit down, even in his physical state.
The Skverer Rebbe seemed to perceive the incongruity: not sitting down on shatnez seats and taking a second cup of water, which rightfully should have gone to someone else. So he never drank plain water again. That was a form of teshuva intended to strengthen his ahavas yisrael.
Why did he need to do that? Chayecha kodem!
Consider what we have all heard from the holy Baal Shem Tov, we can understand the mitzvah of ahavas yisrael through the posuk of Hashem tzilcha al yad yeminecha. Hashem behaves with us the way we behave towards others; the aim of ahavas yisrael is not to do things to others that we don’t want done to us in order to create a certain type of world, i.e. a world of peace, love and trust. Usually we think of ahavas yisrael in terms of the other person, what I should do for him or her. What the Baal Shem Tov is saying that the central player in the mitzvah of ahavas yisrael is ME! I start with myself and my preferences (that the Torah has defined for me), and reason outward towards the people around me—what I should NOT do to others!
In this way, we can understand that not only is the principle of chayecha kodem not a contradiction to the mitzvah of ahavas yisrael—it is the central mechanism of ahavas yisrael. What kind of world do you want to live in? You can create it by employing the physician’s first principle: first, do no harm!