The Apter Rebbe was known by his sefer, Ohev Yisrael. And as his name suggests, he was an exceptional proponent of the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow Jew. He was accustomed to say that in every single Torah portion there is an allusion to ahavas Yisrael.
One of his chassidim once asked where such allusion was to be found in Parshas Balak. A superficial reading of this parsha certainly turns up no such reference. The Rebbe looked at the chassid in surprise and told him there was an obvious allusion—the name BaLaK is an acronym for the words V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha—You shall love your fellow as yourself! The chassid looked at the Rebbe and exclaimed, “But Rebbe, Balak is spelled beis, lamed, kuf and the words in the pasuk begin with the letters vov, lamed, chaf!”
The Apter Rebbe responded with a profound insight saying, “You have been my chassid all these years. Haven’t you learned yet that when it comes to ahavas Yisrael, you can’t be so exacting with the strict lettering?”מַתְנִי׳ עַל הַכֹּל כּוֹתְבִין עַל הֶעָלֶה שֶׁל זַיִת וְעַל הַקֶּרֶן שֶׁל פָּרָה גְּמָ׳ שְׁלַחוּ מִתָּם כְּתָבוֹ עַל אִיסּוּרֵי הֲנָאָה כָּשֵׁר אָמַר רַב אָשֵׁי אַף אֲנַן נָמֵי תְּנֵינָא עַל הֶעָלֶה שֶׁל זַיִת דִּילְמָא שָׁאנֵי עָלֶה שֶׁל זַיִת דַּחֲזֵי לְאִיצְטְרוֹפֵי רש”י דחזי לאיצטרופי—עם עלין הרבה לשכוב עליהן או למאכל בהמה ואע”ג דלא שוה פרוטה אבל איסורי הנאה לא
Mishna: One may write a get on anything, even an olive leaf or a cow horn. Gemara: The Rabbis sent a message from Israel: If one wrote a get on a forbidden item, it is kosher (despite having no intrinsic value). Rav Ashi said: We learned similarly, “on an olive leaf” (which is permissible even though a single leaf has no value). But, perhaps, an olive leaf is different since it may be combined with others!
Rashi: It may be combined with many olive leaves, making it thereby suitable to stuff a mattress or for animal fodder, even though it alone is worth less than a penny. However, forbidden items have no such solution.
When couples initially make the sad, but sometimes necessary, decision to divorce, more often than not, they will set out with the intention to separate on amicable terms. At least, that’s what they say in the beginning. As a rabbi, I have watched painfully as couples then begin divorce proceedings and matters rarely turn out amicable. Once they start arguing over who gets what and who sees the kids when, sadly, amicable quickly shifts to nasty. If they couldn’t get along and agree when they were married, what makes them think they will be able to do so when they are no longer obligated to one another?
And yet, there is a mitzvah in the Torah to get divorced. So, when someone comes along and says, “I want to fulfill every one of the 613 mitzvos!” we gently explain that it’s simply not possible. Firstly, many of the mitzvos may only be fulfilled in the Holy Temple. Secondly, many only apply to farmers in Israel. Thirdly, many apply specifically to Kohanim, women or men—you can’t be all of the above. And finally, there are mitzvos that you don’t want to fulfill, at least not by choice. One of those is divorce. When a couple gets divorced, the Talmud says that the altar in the Holy Temple sheds tears. That being said, if there’s no other choice, the Torah offers the mitzvah of divorce.
But what does it mean that divorce is a mitzvah? Like any mitzvah, you could perform it in a nice and pleasant manner, or you could do it in a mean-spirited manner. For example, when you give tzedaka, do you give the money reluctantly or with a smile? When you get up and daven in the morning, is it begrudgingly, because you have to, or because you can’t wait to communicate with Hashem? Likewise, divorce is a mitzvah that unfortunately many perform nastily. But it needn’t be that way.
We have a mitzvah in the Torah, “Love your reia (fellow) as yourself.” The word for fellow, reia, comes from the same root as the word ra, meaning bad. It’s no big deal to love people whom you naturally like; the mitzvah is to love people who are “bad” in your eyes or at least incompatible with your temperament.
Why would a fellow write his bill of divorce on an olive leaf? From the time of Noach’s dove, the olive leaf or branch has been a symbol of peace. There is probably no greater challenge than to love someone from whom you have chosen to get divorced. If you want to fulfill the mitzvah of loving your fellow with this person whom you have every reason to despise, you’re going to have to double and redouble your efforts; even if and when the person doesn’t respond in kind. That’s the meaning of writing your get on an olive leaf. It might have no intrinsic monetary value, but the intangible value is priceless.
That’s what the Gemara means when it concludes that one olive leaf alone has no value, but combined with others, it most certainly has value. How do you put a value on a smile or a warm word? You can’t. But if enough people are nice and kind to one another, even to those who they believe are undeserving of their kindness, the world becomes a different place.
Our Sages tell us the dove chose the olive leaf because olives are naturally bitter. It’s easy to be at peace with people you like. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you need to make peace with people you don’t really like. May you always fulfill the mitzvah of loving your reia, as challenging as it may be!
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman lives in Teaneck and is the author of The Transformative Daf series.