Love of Hashem Through Ahavas Yisrael

There is no need to stress the importance of ahavas Yisroel. Probably more has been written on this topic than on any other. R’ Akiva said that the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha (love your fellow as yourself) is the all-encompassing principle of Torah (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4). Hillel told the convert that this mitzvah is the essence of Torah (Shabbos 31a). The secondTemple was destroyed because of unwarranted dislike among Jews, even though they wereTorah scholars and otherwise meticulously observant (Yoma 9b). Chassidic and mussarliterature is replete with discussions of ahavas Yisrael. Yet, this vital mitzvah is tragically neglected.


There are many negative middos (character traits) that obstruct ahavas Yisrael, and the resistance to changing character traits is formidable. Egotistical middos are a self-glorification that precludes love of another. R’ Yisrael of Salant said that it is easier to complete the study of the entire Talmud than to change even a single character trait. It would require intensive motivation to overcome this resistance, and apparently the motivation provided by the Chassidic and mussarliterature is not strong enough to overcome the resistance.


Perhaps there is a motivation that can be effective. Every person has an interest in ridding oneself of sins, to avoid their consequences both in this and in the Eternal World. We doteshuvah and we fast on Yom Kippur to attain forgiveness for our sins. However, let us realize that even the forgiveness of Yom Kippur may not erase every trace of a sin, and that teshuvahthat is motivated primarily by fear of consequences mitigates the severity of a sin, but does not totally eliminate it.


Teshuvah that is done out of love for Hashem is in a category all its own. Not only are sins totally forgiven, but they are actually transformed into merits!


Self-centered ego traits stand in the way of ahavas Yisrael, but if we will realize the enormous gain that we can garner when ahavas Yisrael enables us to achieve love of Hashem, and ourteshuvah will then convert all our sins to merits, we will be willing to put forth the effort to developahavas Yisrael. If one knew that by achieving ahavas Yisrael one would win the lottery, one would certainly put forth the effort. Gaining the total forgiveness of one’s sins and having them converted to merits is a much greater windfall than a lottery jackpot!


Let us look at some of the things that obstruct ahavas Yisrael. One of the major factors is harboring resentments against someone who we feel has offended us. It is certainly difficult to overcome a personal hurt. The magic balm for this is empathy. Empathy is the willingness to see things from another person’s perspective. There doubtless have been times when our actions elicited resentment from others because they did not understand why we acted that way. Had they known our circumstances and how we perceived the situation, they would have understood our behavior. It has been said that “to understand is to forgive.” Better yet, to understand is to avoid feeling offended, so that there is no need for forgiveness.


Empathy is what the Talmud meant by, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place,” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5) and “”Judge everyone favorably” (ibid. 1:6).


It is not that difficult to empathize, if only we would pause and think. The problem is that we may have emotional knee-jerk reactions. The moment we feel provoked, our defenses kick-in and we react with hostility and we do not have the opportunity to empathize. The only way to avoid a knee-jerk reaction is to be prepared. We can do this by making a commitment daily to empathize. We can utilize the Ari z”l’s dictum, to say before the morning prayer, “I take upon myself fulfillment of the mitzvah, ‘Love your fellow man as you do yourself.’ ” Empathizing with another person is the finest way to fulfill this precious mitzvah. It takes no more than a few seconds to meditate on this, and it can set a positive tone for the entire day. If, as so often happens, someone during the day says or does something that is irritating to you, you will have prepared yourself to avoid a knee-jerk reaction.


The Talmud says that when a person is in rage, “all the forces of Hell rule over him” (Nedarim 22a). When one loses control, one is apt to say or do things that one would not normally do. Think of how many times you reacted to a provocation, only to regret it later. “I wish I had not said that.” Unfortunately, words cannot be retracted. The prophet justly compared speech to an arrow, which once it leaves the bow, cannot be retrieved (Jeremiah 9:7). Empathy can spare you much distress.


I once had an incident that illustrates this point. One night, when I was on duty at the hospital, I received a call from the nurse to hurry to the ward, because a patient had gone berserk. I knew what had happened. He was a “brittle diabetic,” which meant that one day 60 units of insulin would not be enough, and on another day, 20 units could be an overdose. He was having an insulin reaction, which deprived his brain of glucose, so that his brain had no “fuel” with which to function. The treatment was to get glucose into his blood stream, which is accomplished by an intravenous injection.


Several nurses’ assistants had wrestled the patient to the ground, and as I tried to inject the glucose, his hand broke loose from their grip and he landed a punch on my chin that sent me flying across the room. I was eventually able to inject the glucose, whereupon he quickly regained his wits and said, “Why is everyone here? Is there anything wrong?” He had no awareness of what had happened.


Sustaining a heavy punch to the jaw invariably elicits intense anger. However, there was no way I could be angry at this person. He had no intention of hurting me. Because his brain was deprived of glucose, he was swinging his arms wildly, and I happened to be in the way.


Just as abnormal brain physiology can cause a person to unintentionally aggress, so can a variety of circumstances cause a person to say or do things that he does not really mean. We act according to how we perceive things, and our perception may be incorrect.


R’ Shlomo Wolbe cites a halachah that demonstrates this. If a person swears falsely about an incident in the past because he was under the impression that it happened the way he experienced it, he is not guilty of the serious sin of a false oath, because he is considered anonaiss, as though he did it against his will. The Talmud derives this halachah from the Torah verse that holds a person culpable for swearing falsely only if he was in the status of adam, an intact, knowledgeable person. However, someone who functions under an erroneous impression is not, at that time, considered a responsible adam. (Alei Shur vol.2 p. 25). In other words, the Torahempathizes with this person, essentially excusing his behavior because he was misinformed. We, too, should practice such consideration.


Another common obstacle to ahavas Yisrael is envy. When we are envious of someone because he has more than we have, we cannot love him. Why is he more fortunate than me? Why is he more deserving than me?


Envy can be very destructive, as it may drive a person to exhaust himself, as Solomon says, “I saw that all labor and all skillful enterprise spring from man’s rivalry with his neighbor. This, too, is futility and a vexation of the spirit” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Trying to keep up with or outdo someone is trying to fill a bottomless pit. There are always people who have more than us, and envy defies satiation. It is indeed “futility and a vexation of the spirit.”


If logic would prevail, envy would not be a problem. What good is it to be envious? That is not going to bring me any closer to happiness. To the contrary, it can be a constant irritant.


The Torah tells us that Hashem provided our ancestors with the manna prior to giving them theTorah at Sinai. Why? Because the portion of manna one gathered each day was just enough for that day. If a person gathered more than one’s allotted measure of manna, the excess spoiled. The message was clear. Hashem will provide for your needs. If you try to attain more than your share, your efforts will be in vain. Once the Israelites were convinced of this, they were able to accept a Torah which dictated, “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s belongings.”


Strengthening our faith and trust in Hashem, that He will provide for our needs and that, therefore, we should not measure our needs by what others have, can eliminate toxic envy.


R’ Baruch Ber Lebovitz said, “When I stand before the Heavenly Tribunal and they ask me what merits I have, what can I say? My Torah study? Is that what one can call true Torah study? Myyiras shamayim (reverence for Hashem), is that what one can call yiras shamayim? What can I say in my behalf?  I will say, whenever I passed any Jew on the street, I thought in my heart, ‘Hashem should bless him.’ I loved Jews, and that is my only valid merit.”


We can now better understand a comment by one of the mussar authorities who cites the statement by R’ Akiva that the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha is the all-encompassing principle of Torah. “All encompassing” means that everything in Torah, all 613 mitzvos, fall under the rubric of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha. Every mitzvah, whether it is eating matzah, sitting in the Sukkah, or giving tzedakah should increase the love toward other Jews.


One might ask, It is understandable that tzedakah and other mitzvos that relate to interpersonal behavior can increase ahavas Yisrael, but how do mitzvos that are between a person andHashem, like matzah and tefillin, enhance ahavas Yisrael? The answer is that performance of any mitzvah activates the neshamah, which is one with all other neshamos. Every mitzvahshould strengthen the bond of one Jew to another. This is why the introductory prayer before performance of a mitzvah includes the phrase beshem kol Yisrael, on behalf of all Israel.


I must digress to elaborate a bit on ahavas Yisrael, because this is subject to misunderstanding. A chassidic master said that proper living is similar to walking a tightrope. If one leans too far to the left, one will fall and be killed, but the same will happen if one leans too far to the right. Proper ethical living requires keeping a delicate balance. This is essentially what Rambam meant when he wrote about the “mean of virtue,” the golden path that avoids extremes.


We may think that a person who sacrifices himself for the welfare of others is virtuous, and that a mother who totally sacrifices herself for her children is the ideal mother. But much depends on the motivation that underlies the self-sacrifice.


The Torah says, “ve’ahavta lre’acha kamocha,” love your fellow person as you do yourself. It is obvious that one cannot love another unless one loves oneself. Let us remember that it was R’ Akiva who said that ve’ahavta lre’acha kamocha is the all encompassing principle of Torah. Yet, the Talmud cites a dispute about a hypothetical case in which two travelers are stranded in a desert and have only a small amount of water, just enough to sustain the life of one person. If both share it, both will die. R’ Akiva, who championed the all-important ve’ahavta lre’acha kamocha,ruled that the one who has the water should drink the entire amount, because “your own life takes priority” (Bava Metzia 62a). That both should drink and die is foolish. But why not sacrifice your life for the other person? Because that is not ve’ahavta lre’acha kamocha. Self-negation is not always a virtue. The great sage, Hillel, whose anivus (humility) is legendary, said “If I am here, then all is here” (Sukkah 53a ). Self-effacement and self-negation are not identical.


It is only reasonable. If I am to love my fellow because he is a human being, then I must love myself too, for I , too, am a human being. Furthermore, it is not true that there is only the one person in the world that one can love, nor that love for that one person results in a withdrawal of love for others. True love of one person implies the love of man as such.


True self-love is not selfishness. A selfish person is interested only in himself and what he can get out of the world. He lacks interest in the needs of others and has no respect for their dignity. He judges everyone and everything according to its usefulness for him. Obviously, he is unable to love others, ostensibly because he is narcissistic and is in love with himself. But here lies the error. As I have pointed out in my writings on self-esteem, a narcissist does not love himself. To the contrary, the selfish person, the narcissist, actually hates himself. To defend himself from the discomfort of self-loathing, he makes himself the center of the world. His grandiosity is a defense against his feelings of worthlessness. A selfish person cannot love others, but does not love himself either.

This may become clearer if we understand what is the “self.” The human body is essentially an animal body, and a selfish person is totally occupied with this component of his being. But if we understand the human body to be only a utensil which contains the Divine neshamah, and is merely an instrument whereby the neshamah can do the will of Hashem, then we can recognize the neshamah as being the true “self.” One then cares for one’s body in order that it be in optimal condition to carry out the dictates of the neshamah. Inasmuch as the real “me” is the neshamah,we can understand Hillel’s statement, “If I am here, then all is here.” The “I” is the neshamah.