Fixing the Big Picture: (How) Is Ahavat Yisrael Possible?
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Why we mourn
We have two yearly communal periods of mourning – the 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. Chazal1 attribute the churban to the sin of sinat chinam (baseless hatred).2 Though the Jews of the Second Temple period were involved in Torah, mitzvot, and chessed(!), they (still) hated each other and were therefore exiled.3
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).4 This explains why many Tannaim saw healthy relationships as central to Torah and mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva considered loving other Jews the Torah’s greatest principle.5 Hillel went even further and hailed proper interpersonal relationships as the entirety(!) of the Torah.6
The mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha”7 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 second yearly mourning period – the Omer. During the Omer, we mourn for Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand8 talmidim who perished because they did not show respect to one another.9
Though the talmidim may have actually had respect for (and definitely did not hate) one another, not showing respect was enough to seal their fate. Their death, which occurred parallel to (or, possibly, as part of10) the failure of the Bar Kochva rebellion, extinguished 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.11 Disregarding them causes churban and subsequent mourning.
The Sefat Emet12 and Rav Kook13 reach a natural conclusion. If churban is caused by baseless hatred and disrespect, we merit redemption through love and respect. The Chafetz Chaim said (in the name of the Zohar) that: “If one shul could maintain proper peace and harmony among its members, we would merit the coming of Mashiach.”14
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 ka’mocha – as we love ourselves. The Ramban15 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 ourselves – to help every Jew become as successful as possible. The klal gadol of ka’mocha commands us to do for others exactly what we seek for ourselves – “without distinctions, without schemes, exactly like you.”16
The mitzvah is also completely inclusive. We are commanded to love all Jews – even those there is a mitzvah to hate.17 Chazal teach this idea in the context of the mitzvot to help load18 and unload19 another’s donkey. Though we generally prioritize unloading (out of sensitivity for the animal), Chazal20 instruct 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,21 they encourage prioritizing helping those we hate in order to mitigate these feelings.
Tosafot22 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 seek to help us avoid the development of “complete” hatred. We are meant to hate the sin, but not the sinner.23
The wise woman Beruriah made this point to her husband, Rabbi Meir, who was praying for the death of heretics.24 She noted that Sefer Tehillim25 expresses the hope that sin, not sinners, disappear and she encouraged him to do the same. Heeding his wife’s sage advice, Rabbi 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 people – because we are all Hashem’s creations. By loving and showing respect to His creations, we, in essence, show respect to Hashem Himself.26 The Ba’al HaTanya27 saw this as the reason why Hillel used the word “beriyot (creations)” to describe people when encouraging us to emulate Aharon HaKohen who was “oheiv et ha’briyot u’mekarvan la’Torah (loved creations and drew them close to Torah).” Hillel used the word “beriyot” to include even those we see no reason to love beyond the fact that they were created by G-d.28
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.29
This is how Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook explained why Pirkei Avot30 twice lists the love of “beriyot” 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.
Hashem’s having created all people is why we should love every one of them. This is the lesson Eliyahu HaNavi taught Rabbi Elazar b’Rebbi Shimon. Proud of his having mastered much Torah, Rebbe 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” him — Hashem. Immediately realizing his mistake, Rabbi Elazar begged for forgiveness.31
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.32 This is how the Midrash33 explains why Ben Azzai chose the pasuk of “zeh sefer toldot adam”34 as the Torah’s greatest principle. The end of that pasuk reiterates man’s creation in G-d’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 G-dly creatures, the Jewish people are uniquely beloved, as we are all Hashem’s children.35 This is why “v’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha” 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 Rambam36 explains that appreciating Hashem’s amazing creations brings one to appreciate their 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 Arizal taught the importance of committing oneself to the mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha” before praying to Hashem:37 Love for His creations is a pre-condition for receiving Hashem’s love and affection.38
The Maharal39 summarizes the bilateral linkage between ahavat Hashem and ahavat ha’beriyot 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 G-d who created them.”
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 (on some level) with this importance, we find developing these feelings 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 Breslov40 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”41 in order to appreciate the traits and ideas we can apply to our own lives. This, writes Rav Nachman, is “where love lies.”
Pirkei Avot42 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 cheilek (portion) in His Torah43) means that they all have what 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 Nachman44 explains this as the meaning of Pirkei Avot’s exhortation to “judge all people favorably.”45 Every person, even the worst sinner, has 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. David HaMelech teaches this lesson through the well-known pesukim in Sefer Tehillim which identify a desirable life as one that allows people to “love each day by focusing upon the good.”46 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.47
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 talmidim, 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 smile48 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.
1 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yoma 9b. See Malbim (Tehillim 122:6) who learns from Tehillim 122 that the city of Yerushalayim’s strong peaceful existence hinges on the healthy interpersonal relationships between its citizens. See also Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Bava Kamma 33b.
See Maharal (Netzach Yisrael Perek 4) who explained why this had such a devastating impact on specifically the second Beit HaMikdash.
2 The episode of “Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Gittin 55b) is an excellent example of this baseless hatred.
3 One can explain the connection between baseless hatred and the churban not only as one of crime and punishment, but also naturally. Josephus (History of the Jewish Wars with the Romans) records how, exhausted from their infighting, the Jews lacked the strength to face the external Roman enemy.
4 The Gemara (there) goes even further and asserts that the fingernails of those who lived during the First Temple period were better than the stomachs of those who lived during the Second Temple. The Gra (Ruach Hamosheil, pg. 213) explains that as opposed to the earlier generation, whose sins were merely external and expressive of their inability to control themselves, the baseless hatred of the later generation reflected the fact that they were internally problematic. See the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 7:3) who explains the unique severity of sinful character traits.
See also Masechet Avot 2:11 which depicts the serious implications of this sin.
The Zohar (Parshat Vayeshev 29b) links the baseless hatred of the Second Temple period which we commemorate during the twenty-two days of the Three Weeks to the hatred Yaakov’s sons had for their brother Yosef (Sefer Bereishit 37:4) which caused him to be exiled for twenty-two years. Sadly, baseless hatred goes back to the very beginning of Jewish history. See also Sifri (Vezot HaBracha 11) which explains that Hashem chose to found His Beit HaMikdash in the portion of Binyamin because he was the only brother not involved in the sale of Yosef.
5 Sifra, Kedoshim 4; Bereishit Rabbah 24:7.
6 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Shabbat 31a. See Medrash Shocher Tov which links this teaching of Hillel with the pasuk of V’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha.
Also, this statement of Hillel dovetails with his directive to emulate Aharon HaKohen’s ahavat haberiyot (Masechet Avot 1:12).
7 Sefer Vayikra 19:18.
8 The Gemara (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 62b) describes the twenty-two thousand as twelve thousand pairs. The message might be that the group was a representative body of the Jewish people, which consists of twelve tribes.
9 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 62b. The Gemara (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Menachot 68b) tells of Rabbi Akiva rebuking one of his talmidim for such conduct.
Many wonder how Rabbi Akiva, who emphasized the importance of ahavat Yisrael, could have talmidim who acted this way. Many suggest that Rabbi Akiva learned this lesson from the fate of his talmidim. At the very least, we know that Rabbi Akiva himself attributed their death to this sin (See Kohelet Rabbah 11).
Understandably, Rabbi Akiva’s later talmidim emphasized the importance of showing respect to one’s friends. See Masechet Avot 4:10,12 and Talmud Bavli, Masechet Berachot 28b, Masechet Shabbat 32b and 118a, Masechet Berachot 43b, and Masechet Bava Metzia 33a, Medrash Tanchuma Vayechi 2, and Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:15.
10 See Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon. Rabbi Akiva was an initial supporter of Bar Kochva (Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Ta’anit 4:5) and it makes sense that his talmidim might have been killed as part of the Roman reprisals to the revolt.
11 See Rosh on Pei’ah 1:1. See also Mesilat Yesharim Perek 19 based upon Masechet Avot 3:10. See also Sippurei Tzaddikim (of Rav Simcha Raz) pg. 95 and Great Jewish Wisdom pg. 63.
12 Sefat Emet, Rosh Hashanah 5641
13 Orot Hakodesh 3, pg. 324.
14 Shemirat Halashon 2:7.
15 Ramban, Vayikra 19:17.
16 Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 11.
17 See Talmud Bavli, Masechet Pesachim (113b), Avot D’Rebbe Natan 16:5, Sifri Re’eh 37, and Yerei’im 224.
In a famous letter, Rav Kook addressed secular kibbutz members as “loved (and) hated brothers.”
18 Sefer Devarim 22:4.
19 Sefer Shemot 23:5.
20 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Bava Metzia 32b.
21 Chazal predated Benjamin Franklin, who “discovered” this idea over 1500 years later (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, pg. 48).
See also Maharal (Netivot Olam 1: Netiv HaTzedakah 6), Rav Hirsch (Bereishit 22:2), and the Michtav Mei’Eliyahu (1:Kuntras HaChessed) who discuss this idea.
22 Tosafot (D’H Shera’ah) to Talmud Bavli, Masechet Pesachim 113b.
23 See Lechem Shamayim (of Rav Yaakov Emden) to Masechet Avot 1:12. See also Avot D’Rebbe Natan (Perek 33) who quotes an opinion that identifies a “gibor” as one who can turn someone they hate into someone they love.
See also Chazon Ish (Yoreh Dei’ah 12), who explains that this idea applies even more so in contemporary times, when heresy is so widespread.
In contrast, note that the Sifri (Re’eh 37), Avot D’Rebbe Natan (16:5), the Ye’rei’im (224) and other Rishonim who see sinners as (totally) excluded from the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael.
24 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Berachot 10a.
25 Sefer Tehillim 104:35.
26 See Masechet Avot 4:1, quoting Hashem’s description of people showing Him respect as a prooftext for the importance of respecting other people.
27 Sefer HaTanya 32.
28 See Masechet Avot 2:11, which also uses the term “beriyot” in this context. See also Talmud Bavli, Masechet Berachot (17a), which quotes the prestigious rabbis of Yavneh who used this term as a basis for appreciating the equal value and significance of all people.
29 See Rav Kook (Midot Hari’iyah Ahavah 6) who describes a love for all creations that naturally resides in the heart of the righteous. This love includes all things, people, and nations – even Amalek!
In Orot Hakodesh 3 (pg. 327) Rav Kook asserts that people who think in a pure, G-dly way cannot hate or denigrate any creation or ability found within our world, as they are all revelations of Hashem’s handiwork.
30 Masechet Avot 6:1 and 6:6.
31 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Ta’anit (20a). See Rashi there (d.h. Nizdamein) who explains that the man was, in actuality, Eliyahu HaNavi, who appeared to Rabbi Elazar to teach him a much-needed lesson.
32 See Mechilta, Parshat Hachodesh 11.
33 Bereishit Rabbah 24:7. See also the formulation of Sifri, Kedoshim 4.
34 Sefer Bereishit 5:1.
35 See Sefer Shemot 4:22, Sefer Devarim 14:1, Masechet Avot 3:14.
36 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.
37 Quoted from Kavanot Ha’Ari by the Magen Avraham Orach Chayim 46 (Introduction).
38 The Arizal quoted by Shaarei Ha’hitkashrut of Rav Chaim Vital.
39 Netivot Olam 2, Netiv Ahavat Rei’a, Perek 1. See also Shelah (Sha’ar Ha’otiyot, Ot Bet, “Beriyot”) who elaborates upon the connection and relationship between the two Torah mandated loves – love of Hashem and love of man.
40 Likutei Maharan 34:8.
41 See also Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah (28) that also speaks about the importance of fearing other people as part of its discussion of loving and respecting others. We should have yirat Shamayim when we speak to each other because we are speaking to one of Hashem’s creations.
42 Masechet Avot 4:1.
43 Masechet Avot 5:20
44 Likutei Maharan 1:282.
45 Masechet Avot 1:6.
46 Sefer Tehillim 34:13.
47 The Torah links these two events by using the word “dibah” to describe each of their acts of slander (Bereishit 37:2 and Bamidbar 13:32, 14:36 and 37) and nowhere else in the Torah.
48 See Masechet Avot 1:15, 3:12, and 4:15.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.