May 26, 2024
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The heilige Rebbe Yisrael of Rhizin—the great-grandson of the maggid of Mezritch—was known for his righteousness and expansive sense of holiness. Brilliant, beloved and deeply committed to the wellbeing of klal Yisrael, the holy Rhizner shared the following maaseh on Shabbos Parshas Kedoshim:

“Reuven and Lazer were chaverim—best of friends—although they lived in different towns. One day, news spread of an accusation of rebellion against the king, which led to a death sentence. The accused provided clear evidence that he had no involvement in the crime, however, he was held up as a scapegoat. Ongoing threats of insurrection in the kingdom meant that everyone was ordered to watch the execution, and the horrible spectacle would serve as deterrence.

When Reuven arrived at the capital city for ‘the event,’ he was shocked to see that the man sentenced to die—standing there before the gallows in handcuffs—was none other than Lazer. He began to push through the crowd shouting, “Wait! It was me! You’ve got the wrong guy! It was me! I am the guilty one!” A policeman grabbed him and brought him before the king. Seeing his friend Reuven, Lazer spoke up: ‘It’s not true! He is innocent; I confess I was lying, I committed the crime and I deserve to die!’

Reuven pleaded with the king who was seated upon a high platform. “Your majesty, I have known this man my whole life and he is my closest friend. Believe me, he would never do what he is accused of—it’s not his personality. Please, I beg you, take me instead. I can’t bear the thought of my friend being killed. I would much rather die than stand by and watch him suffer.” Lazer refused to remain silent, and they both continued to contend that it was he who should be executed.

The king was always fearful that anyone—from his family to his ministers—could be plotting against him, and was deeply moved by the selfless love and loyalty of the two friends—each willing to die for the other. Finally, he couldn’t bear it and stood up. ‘I grant you both royal pardon,’ he said haltingly, ‘but on one condition … Please, if you would, if you could … just be my friend, like you are to each other!’”

~

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה׳

“And you shall love your friend, ‘the other’, (just) as (you instinctively love and seek benefit for) yourself, ” (19:18).

Rashi quotes a medrash saying that this divine commandment is the “klal gadol baTorah”—it is not just one of the most important elements, but the central value and goal of Torah. Indeed, “loving others” is none other than the highest form of spiritual expression, and the most God-like activity that we can engage in.

Chazal place our religious experience in the context of an exclusive, intimate relationship with the Ribbono Shel Olam. Yet, the litmus test or barometer to measure our closeness with Hashem is our commitment to the mitzvah and value of v’ahavta.

“V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha” is the most omnipresent of mitzvos; in every encounter with others, we have an opportunity to uphold and fulfill it. As the philosopher, Martin Buber, notes, in the intimacy of our religious lives, v’ahavta is so fundamental to our identity and practice that all of Yiddishkeit “lives in its light” and is animated by this mitzvah. Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Epstein of Krakow—the Maor VaShemesh—proclaims this mitzvah to be the “yesod kol haTorah kulah—the foundation of the entire Torah.”

~

This week, we mark Yom Hazikaron—Israel’s national day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. We honor the kedoshim who fell in sanctification of God’s Name, martyrs about whom our Sages say, “No one (is great enough to) dwell in their section of Gan Eden,” (Pesachim, 50a). An individual who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish people transcends their individual, personal status and becomes subsumed into the collective and comprehensive level of the holiness of nishmas klal Yisrael, and are elevated in their death and afterlife. Those who fell al kiddush Hashem have a portion in all of our accomplishments; for we who continue to live in Eretz Yisrael today do so in their merit.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe frames the bravery and sacrifice of chayalei Tzahal as the ultimate expression of shlichus and ahavas Yisrael. In sichos that he delivered during wartime, the rebbe refers to chayalei Tzahal as “tzadikim.” In the Rebbe’s elevated and expansive spiritual worldview, righteousness and spiritual heroism is expressed in many forms, but the willingness to give up one’s life to protect the Nation and Land is literal mesiras nefesh, self sacrifice, the holiest of all deeds.

Indeed, numerous sections of Mishneh Torah outline action-based mitzvos that are rooted in v’ahavta—including bikur cholim, ensuring proper burial of the dead, comforting mourners, dealing with others fairly in business, hachnasas orchim, providing for a kallah, tzedaka and redeeming captives. But there is no greater expression of “v’ahavta” than the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the protection of one’s fellow. There is no greater kedusha, no higher level of dedication to Knesses Yisrael than the extraordinary commitment and sacrifice of our holy soldiers and their heroic families.

This perhaps is the intent of the Rhizner’s mashal for Parshas Kedoshim. When we live the full expression of “v’ahavta—self-sacrifice for one another,” then, אֲנִי ה׳—“I, Hashem, am manifest—for I want to be a part of that sacred bond of friendship as well.”

Let us reassert our commitment to one another and ensure that all of our efforts in Yiddishkeit “lives in the light” of the “klal gadol baTorah.” May the Ribono shel Olam avenge the blood of our fallen brothers and sisters, protect our beloved soldiers and may His mercy awaken in their merit, so that we be zoche to the complete redemption, bekarov mamash.


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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