May 25, 2024
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Fixing the Big Picture: How to Achieve Ahavat Yisrael

Why We Mourn

We have two yearly communal periods of mourningthe Three Weeks and the Omer. Both were caused by dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.

The Three Weeks commemorate the churban (destruction) of the Beit Hamikdash and our exile from Eretz Yisrael. Chazal (Yoma 9b) attributes the churban to the sin of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). Though the Jews of the Second Temple period were involved in Torah, mitzvot and chesed, they still hated each other and were, therefore, exiled.

Baseless hatred’s ability to cause churban teaches us that this sin is as severe as the three cardinal sins (which caused the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash). This explains why many Tannaim saw healthy relationships as central to Torah and mitzvot. Rebbe Akiva considered loving other Jews the Torah’s greatest principle (Sifra, Kedoshim 4). Hillel went even further and hailed proper interpersonal relationships as the entirety of the Torah (Shabbat 31a).

The mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” (Vayikra 19:18) demands more than merely avoiding hatred; we are commanded to love each other as well. We see the importance of this love and of respect for one another from the other yearly mourning periodthe Omer. During the Omer, we mourn for Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 students, who perished because they did not show respect to one another (Yevamot 62b).

Though the students may have actually had respect for (and definitely did not hate) one another, not showing respect was enough to seal their fate. Their deathwhich occurred parallel to (or, possibly, as part of) the failure of the Bar Kochva rebellionextinguished the final hope for a quick rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and led to almost two thousand years of exile and suffering: “The world was decimated.”

The lesson of these two mourning periods is obvious. Though the Torah commands many mitzvot that guide our relationship with Hashem, the mitzvot that govern interpersonal relationships are the most important. Disregarding them causes churban and subsequent mourning.

The Sefat Emet (Rosh Hashanah 5641) and Rav Kook (Orot Hakodesh 3, page 324) reach a natural conclusion. If churban is caused by baseless hatred and disrespect, we merit redemption through love and respect. The Chafetz Chaim saidin the name of the Zoharthat “if one shul could maintain proper peace and harmony among its members, we would merit the coming of Moshiach (Shemirat Halashon 2:7).”

Sadly, we know that accomplishing this is easier said than done.


The High Bar

A closer look at the parameters of the mitzvah to love one another accentuates the enormity of the task.

First off, as we saw, the Torah commands us to love one another kamocha—“as we love ourselves.” The Ramban (Vayikra 19:17) explains that most people have pity upon and are willing to help those less talented or blessed, but are more hesitant to help those more or as successful as themselves. We are happy to help others improve their situation, but we try to maintain our supremacy. The Torah commands us to care for others like we care for ourselvesto help every Jew become as successful as possible. The great principle of “kamocha” commands us to do for others exactly what we seek for ourselves“without distinctions, without schemes, exactly like you (Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 11).”

The mitzvah is also completely inclusive. We are commanded to love all Jewseven those there is a mitzvah to hate. Chazal teaches this idea in the context of the mitzvot to help load (Devarim 22:4) and unload (Shemot 23:5) another’s donkey. Though we, generally, prioritize unloading (out of sensitivity for the animal), Chazal (Bava Metzia 32b) instructs us to help a sinner (who we are commanded to hate) load before helping a friend unload. We are taught to help the sinner first, in order to foster positive feelings toward him. Because Chazal understood that we care about those we roll up our sleeves to help, they encourage prioritizing helping those we hate, in order to mitigate these feelings.

Tosafot (Pesachim 113b) wonders why we are instructed to mitigate the hatred we feel towards those we are meant to hate. If we are meant to hate them because of their sins, why fight these feelings? Tosafot answers that Chazal seeks to help us avoid the development of “complete” hatred. We are meant to hate the sin, but not the sinner.

The wise woman, Bruriah, made this point to her husband, Rebbi Meir, who was praying for the death of heretics (Brachot 10a). She noted that sefer Tehillim (104:35) expresses the hope that sinnot sinnersdisappear and she encouraged him to do the same. Heeding his wife’s sage advice, Rebbe Meir prayed for the sinners to repent and his prayers were answered.


Why We Are Meant to Love

Indeed, we are meant to love all peoplebecause we are all Hashem’s creations. By loving and showing respect to His creations, wein essenceshow respect to Hashem Himself (Avot 4:1). The Ba’al HaTanya (Sefer HaTanya 32) saw this as the reason why Hillel used the word, “briyot (creations)” to describe people when encouraging us to emulate Aharon HaKohen who was “oheiv et habriyot u’mekarvan laTorah,” who “loved creations and drew them close to Torah.” Hillel used the word “briyot” to include even those we see no reason to love, beyond the fact that they were created by God, (Avot 2:11).

One who loves the Creator should love his creations. Though Chazal use the term “sinat chinam,” they never use the term “ahavat chinam.” This is because the love of Hashem’s creatures is never baseless. Hashem’s creation is reason enough to love all His creations.

According to Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, this is why Pirkei Avot twice (6:1 and 6:6) lists the love of “briyot,” right after the love of Hashem. What does the love of Hashem mean if it does not express itself in the love of His creations? As we do not see Hashem himself, we can only come to love Him by appreciating His word (the Torah) and His world. The fact that Hashem created all people is why we should love every one of them. This is the lesson Eliyahu HaNavi taught Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Shimon. Proud of having mastered so much Torah, Rabbi Elazar was riding high on his donkey. Eliyahu appeared as an ugly person and greeted him. After first ignoring him, Rabbi Elazar called Eliyahu an empty and ugly person. Eliyahu responded that Rabbi Elazar should tell this to “the One who created” himHashem. Immediately realizing his mistake, Rabbi Elazar begged for forgiveness (Ta’anit 20a).

No matter how learned and otherwise accomplished one is, it is critical to continue respecting all people. They are all Hashem’s creations and are, thus, valuable and worthy of love and respect.

Though all of Hashem’s creations are valuable, human beings are even more precious, as they are created in Hashem’s image. This is how the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 24:7) explains why Ben Azzai chose the verse of “zeh sefer toldot adam” (Bereishit 5:1) as the Torah’s greatest principle. The end of that verse reiterates man’s creation in God’s image. This is why man’s life and history are important, and why we are all worthy of love and respect.

Though all humans are beloved Godly-creatures, the Jewish people are uniquely beloved, as we are all Hashem’s children. This is why “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” applies particularly to Jews and is followed by the words “ani Hashem.” Hashem reminds us that He created all people in His image and chose all Jews as His children. If we appreciate what truly makes us special, we love (all) those who share our unique distinction as much as we love ourselves.


Where This Love Brings Us

Ahavat Hashem is not only a reason to love His creations; it is also a byproduct of doing so. The Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) explains that appreciating Hashem’s amazing creations brings us to appreciate our Creator. Developing belief in Hashem is much easier than cultivating emotional feelings of fear and love. How can we love or even fear a being we have no way of knowing? The answer is by appreciating His creations. Studying Hashem’s creations generates awe; appreciating His creatures fosters love.

Hashem’s greatest creation is man. Appreciating and loving people help us best appreciate and love Hashem. In fact, the former is a condition for the latter. This is why the Ari, zt”l, taught the importance of committing oneself to the mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” before praying to Hashem. Love for His creations is a pre-condition to receiving Hashem’s love and affection.

The Maharal (Netivot Olam 2) summarizes the bilateral linkage between ahavat Hashem and ahavat habriyot this way: “It is impossible for one who loves Hashem to not love all of His creations. And one who hates creatures, cannot love the God who created them.”


But How?

We have seen 1) how important and demanding loving creatures, people and Jews is, and 2) the reason for their importance.

Though most of us are familiar with the importance of loving othersdeveloping these feelings is challenging. When it comes to the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, there is, sadly, a wide gap between theory and practice. Though we all recognize the mitzvah’s importance, we fall very short of the goal. How can we bring ourselves to love all Jews?

Rav Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Maharan 34:8) offers a suggestion. He explains that love hinges on appreciation. We love the things and people that make us happy, those that enrich our lives. Understanding this, Rav Nachman instructs us to take each other seriously, and to speak to each other with “yirat Shamayim” in order to appreciate the traits and ideas we can apply to our own lives. Thiswrites Rav Nachmanis “where love lies.”

Pirkei Avot (4:1) teaches that the wise man is the one who learns from all others. The fact that all people were created by Hashem and that all Jews are His children (and have a portion in His Torah (5:20) means that they all have something to teach us.

Rav Nachman teaches that love of others depends upon a similar process. The fact that we can learn from each person means that we can appreciate and love them as well.


Focusing on the Good

Loving by learning from others hinges upon our ability to see and focus upon the good in them. Rav Nachman (Likutei Maharan 1:282) explains that this is the meaning of Pirkei Avot’s exhortation (1:6) to “judge all people favorably.” Every personeven the worst sinnerhas positive traits. When we choose to define, or “judge” people by these traits, we inspire them and ourselves to live up to this positive image.

To help us accomplish this, Rav Elimelech of Lizensk wrote a prayer that asks Hashem for His help in inspiring us to see the good in other people: “Save us from the (natural) jealousy people have for each other … In contrast, place in our hearts the ability to see the good in our peers, not what they lack. And that we should speak to each other in a way that is straight and desired by You … And strengthen our bond with love to You.”

Rav Elimelech reminds us that our connection with Hashem hinges upon our relationship with other people and our ability to focus on the good in each of them.

Focusing on the good in others and the world, in general, is also the key to living a good life. Dovid Hamelech teaches this lesson through the well-known verses in sefer Tehillim (34:13), which identify a desirable life as one that allows people to “love each day by focusing upon the good.” One who sees good in the people he is surrounded by, and the events he experiences, will love each day of his life. The good life is not defined objectively. It hinges upon our view of our lives. Many live lives full of riches and pleasures, but are unhappy. Others live lives of poverty and suffering, but are happy because they focus on the good. Such is the desirable life.


Fixing the Big Picture

Our people’s first exile began with Yosef and his brother’s inability to see the good in each other. Hundreds of years later, our first attempt to return to Eretz Yisrael was derailed on Tisha B’Av by the meraglim’s inability to see the good in Eretz Yisrael.

Sadly, even once we entered the land and built a kingdom and the Beit Hamikdash, ongoing hatred and disrespect caused the ultimate churban (again on Tisha B’Av) and the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, leading to two thousand years of exile.

As we mourn these events and their implications, let us aim to fix their cause and to merit redemption through love and respect. Let’s accomplish this by greeting each other with a smile (Avot 1:15, 3:12 and 4:15) and generating positivity by focusing on the good in one another.

May doing so merit the redemption of ourselves, the Jewish people and the entire world, speedily in our days!

Rav Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the educational director of World Mizrachi.

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