Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller was kind enough to allow us to repost this article on Beyond BT during the 3 weeks. For more tapes and articles by Rebbetzin Heller please visit her site.
By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Loving Your Fellow Jew
Now I want to share a completely different idea that relates to the issue of truth. The Torah tells us that in addition to loving truth, searching for truth, and promoting truth, we have to love each other. This should be no problem, of course, because everyone is pro-ahavat Yisrael (loving one’s fellow Jew). The problem is, being pro-ahavat Yisrael doesn’t necessarily mean you do ahavat Yisrael. This is because most of us don’t know the laws of how to love our fellow Jew. One big difference between Christianity and Judaism is that Judaism has halacha. “Halacha” comes from the verb lalechet, to go or walk. You want to reach a certain goal? Here are the steps you have to take.
There are three laws of ahavat Yisrael. The first is that you have to speak well of your fellow Jew—not just not speak ill of him. And what you say has to be true. This means you must choose to focus on what’s true and good in him. You don’t have to mention his name. But you have to have a reason to say what you’re saying. It may feel artificial at first. But when you speak well of someone, you subconsciously align yourself with him, so with time it will feel increasingly natural.
Obviously, you have to be intelligent about whom you speak well of and to whom. The following, for example, will not work: “How fortunate you are that your mother-in-law moved in with you! I’ve always found her to be a font of constructive advice and criticism…” You have to be smart enough to anticipate the reaction, and make sure your praise doesn’t do more harm than good.
The second law of ahavat Yisrael is that you have to be concerned with your fellow Jew’s physical needs. This doesn’t mean giving tzedakah (“charity”)—that’s a different mitzvah. It means that if you see she is hot, open the window. If you see an old lady struggling with her shopping bags, don’t say, “Boy, it’s a shame they don’t deliver after four.” Help her.
Being physically helpful reminds us that we all belong to one club: the club of the “mortals”. When you notice another’s needs, you become aware that she is not so different from you. You both get hot. You both need help carrying heavy things.
In Israel, when tragedy strikes, calls are put out on the emergency network for all volunteers to come to the hospitals. Most volunteers are young, religiously affiliated women ages 18 to 25. They often have nothing practical in common with the victims, many of whom are not religious, older, or younger. But they find themselves becoming part of the people whom they help.
In one terror attack, a whole family was injured, but the children recovered before the parents. Fortunately, neighbors were happy to take them for a while. The problem is, the neighbors were Ashkenazim and the children, who were Sefardim, didn’t like their food. Picture an 11-year-old Moroccan boy bursting into tears when he sees the gefilte fish. The next day a young American volunteer came to me asking, “Do you know anyone who knows how to make couscous?” As different as those children were from her, she became bonded to them through caring for their physical needs.
Speaking well of your fellow Jews and being concerned with their physical well-being are relatively easy. The third law of ahavat Yisrael is the hard one: You have to honor them. Here’s where the “truth” problem raises its head: How can I honor people I disagree with?
The answer is: You can honor them because they’re human. You can honor them because they’re real. You can honor them because of the good you see within them.
Reb Aryeh Levin
A person outstanding in this was Reb Aryeh Levin, who lived in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. He was well-known and loved for the honor he showed every individual. Despite this and his tremendous piety, some people in the community disagreed strongly with him. They felt his tolerance of and compromise with the secular Zionists would ultimately erode religious observance.
In the 1920s, Reb Aryeh became the self-appointed “rabbi of the prisons.” He visited and talked with all kinds of criminals. And they loved him. As time went on, the prisons became full of those the British had imprisoned for Zionist activities. They too loved him.
Why did they love him? There’s a phrase in Mishlei (Proverbs): “One face is the reflection of another face in the water.” You know how this works with babies. Smile at a baby of a few weeks old, and what does it do? It smiles back.
It’s not much different with adults. Once, Reb Aryeh daughter became ill. The diagnosis wasn’t clear and treatment was poor. Things didn’t look good. Reb Aryeh came to the prison on Shabbat as he always did to lead the religious service, and at kriyat haTorah (the Torah reading), he stopped as usual and asked, “Does anyone have anyone they want to pray for?” One of the prisoners said, “Yes—we want to pray for the rabbi’s daughter.” The prisoner began reciting the misheberach, a prayer ending with a pledge to donate tzedakah on behalf of the person one is praying for. The prisoner stopped. He said, “I don’t have money. None of us do. I want to donate time.” He offered a month of his life. The other prisoners followed suit. And they were real. They meant it. They loved him. And that’s because he loved them.
Another famous rabbi in Jerusalem was Rav Amram Blau, a leader of the old, religious yishuv (settlement) community and founder of the Neturei Karta, “Guardians of the Gates.” Rav Blau believed strongly that any inroads of secular Zionism would be the ruin of the yishuv. He would therefore go to extremes in protesting desecration of the Shabbat. He would lie down in the street in the ultra-religious neighborhoods of Geula and Me’ah She’arim and not let traffic go. (The policemen got to know him. They even came to his funeral, where they cried like children because they understood his sincerity.) For his activities, he was imprisoned.
And there was a problem: The prison food wasn’t kosher enough for him, so he wouldn’t eat it. The police wouldn’t let anyone from his community bring him food. The people didn’t know what to do. Finally, they approached Reb Aryeh and said, “You go to the prison every day. Bring him something.” So Reb Aryeh put some food in his jacket pockets and went.
When Reb Aryeh got to Rav Blau’s cell, Rav Blau, instead of gratefully taking the food and thanking him, turned his back. “I don’t want to look at you,” he told Reb Aryeh. “You sympathize with the Zionists.” 99 people out of 100 would have told Rav Blau what they thought of him, taken the food, and gone. But Reb Aryeh put the food down and quietly left.
Uncharacteristically, Reb Aryeh mentioned this to someone. The man was very indignant. “What is this? And he calls himself religious?” Reb Aryeh responded, “Don’t you understand? He wasn’t going to be friendly just because I brought him food. He’s so principled.”
If you want to see the good in another, you can see it, and bond. If you don’t want to see it, you won’t, and you won’t bond.
At one point the British sentenced some people to death. Reb Aryeh actually lay down in front of the British high commissioner’s car to protest. That he was pleading for the life of someone he didn’t necessarily agree with wasn’t relevant to him.
So if you want to love your fellow Jew, you have to learn to find what’s good in him, articulate it, and not be threatened by it.
This can be hard. We say, “Of course I like people. There are just some people I feel closer to than others. For instance, I like people from a cultural background similar to my own.” That eliminates 95% of the population. “And my own age group. I just don’t have what to say to teenagers or old people.” It finally comes down to, “I like people on the same level of religiosity as I and who share my interests…” Meaning, when I look at somebody else, who am I really looking for? Me. Why? Because I know the truth. Remember that problem?
Loving others forces you to become a little bit bigger.
Years ago, an American friend of mine made aliyah and moved into a rental apartment in Geula. I asked her how it was. She said, “Israel is great, but we’re going to have to find another place to live.” I asked, “What’s wrong with the apartment?” She said, “It’s not the apartment, it’s the neighbors.” So I asked her—you’re not supposed to do this, by the way, because it’s like an invitation to speak lashon hara (derogatory or potentially harmful speech)—“What’s so terrible about the neighbors?” She said, “Nothing. But I feel like I live alone in the building. They’re all over 70. They don’t read. I have nothing in common with them.”
Shortly thereafter she left and someone else I knew moved into the apartment. I asked her how she liked it. “I love it,” she said. “Really?” I asked. “The apartment’s so nice?” She replied, “The apartment’s okay—what’s wonderful is the neighbors!” I asked, “Oh, did new people move in?” “No,” she said. “They’re elderly Persians who’ve been living there forever.” I was curious to know why she liked them so much.
She told me that across the hall lives an elderly widow. One day she saw her heading down the stairs with a little grocery basket. She asked her, “You’re going to the grocery? What do you need?” The old lady said, “I’m just getting a bag of rice.” My friend said, “Why should you have to go down and up four flights for a bag of rice? I’ll get it for you and you can pay me back.”
Later that afternoon there was a knock on the door. The old lady was there with a plate of cooked rice. My friend looked at it and said, “You know, my rice doesn’t turn out like this.” In America, everybody buys Uncle Ben’s, and it takes effort to ruin Uncle Ben’s. But Israeli rice is real rice—you know, it grows in marshes, it’s real. So the lady said, “Come, I’ll show you how to make rice.” They went into her apartment, and she took out an ancient pot make of thick metal. She said, “First, you put a little oil on the bottom. Then you put in one noodle. When the noodle turns yellow, put in the cup of rice. Then you put in water that’s already boiling, and the salt. You cook it. When it’s done, you turn off the flame, and put a towel on it.” So my friend tried it. And lo and behold, it wasn’t one of those times when her husband would come home, look at the rice, and ask, “What’s for dinner?” Her rice looked like rice.
So she brought some of the rice to the old lady and said, “See, it came out good!” Which led to the old lady taking out her photograph album—and my friend got to see a whole other world: professional photographs taken in Persia, and then later in Israel in the ‘20s. It was the most interesting thing that had happened to her since she came. That led to them invite the old lady for kiddush on Shabbat morning. Which in turn led her to introduce them to her grandson when he was home from the army, which was their first experience talking to a real, live, native-born Israeli (since English speakers tend to form their own little ghettos). My friend concluded, “If I didn’t live in this building, I’d be in my own little world. This lady expanded my universe.”
That’s how we have to learn to feel about people who are different from us.
So let me review. We dislike each other for two reasons: One, we love truth and tend to not believe that other people could have it if their spark of truth is different from our own. Two, we are threatened by other people’s differences, and are often unwilling to expand ourselves. If you want to get past these two limitations, you must learn to speak well about, care materially for, and give honor to your fellow Jew.
Suppose you say to yourself, “Self, this is nice, but it’s too hard. Reb Aryeh Levin is a great guy to read about, but I’m not him. Personally, I like speaking ill of people I don’t like, devoting my time and efforts to my own physical well-being, and validating my own views. Why should I be different?”
I’ll give you some motivation. The most severe sin of all is idol worship. Remember how Avraham (Abraham) broke his father’s idols? (I have to say: As I get older, I feel more and more empathy for Avraham’s father. You know: “I leave the store for fifteen lousy minutes…” Or how other parents might see it: “There he goes, my ultra-religious son!”) The fact is, if you don’t expand yourself, you end up worshiping yourself—and that’s the most damaging form of all idol worship.