Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary People

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While we might be starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, it remains unclear when we will reach it. For now, we remain homebound, maximizing distancing and finding ourselves in roles and having responsibilities many of us are not used to. These are no ordinary times and yet, there are countless stories emerging of extraordinary people who, rather than focus on themselves and this challenging crisis, are performing spectacular acts of kindness for others.

Those on the front lines are risking their own well-being to treat those who are ill.Those who were previously sick, rather than hibernate in recovery are donating plasma to pay it forward. Some at great personal expense and pain have pledged to continue to pay workers. A group of Chasidic men delivered 1,000 tablets to coronavirus patients in New York City hospitals to let them connect to their families who are not allowed to visit. In our community, on Seder night a young family set up a table and hosted their seder outside the window of an elderly Holocaust survivor so he wouldn’t be alone. All around us, there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things at this time.

In her recent article, The Science of Helping Out, Tara Parker-Pope writes: “At a time when we are all experiencing an extraordinary level of stress, science offers a simple and effective way to bolster our own emotional health. To help yourself, start by helping others. Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a significant impact on our well-being.

What science is teaching now, the Torah has endorsed for us all along.

לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך...לא תקם ולא תטר את בני עמך ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני ה״

“Do not hate your brother in your heart….you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge, you must love you fellow as yourself, I am Hashem.”

This passuk contains one of the most famous commands in the entire Torah, and the Ramban is bothered by the same question as everyone else – is it really possible to love someone as much as you love yourself?  We have been designed and programmed to naturally be inclined to take care of ourselves, look out for ourselves, and prioritize our well-being.  We know ourselves better than anyone in the world, and we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, judge ourselves favorably, see the best in ourselves, and are quick to justify and explain any shortcomings in ourselves.  Can we really meet that standard for others including mere acquaintances and even strangers?

The Ramban explains that in truth it is impossible to love someone as much as we love ourselves and, accordingly, this is not actually the threshold of the mitzvah.  In fact, says the Ramban, to actually put our love for someone on equal footing with ourselves is a violation of the Halacha which demands that in a conflict between saving our own life or saving that of another, חייך קודמים, our life comes first.  So what, then, is the mitzvah and how is it fulfilled?

The Ramban says it is human nature to wish well for others but in reality want them to have less than us.  We want someone to make a good living and be happy… as long as they earn less than we do.  We want them to have a nice house… as long as it isn’t as big as ours; or drive a nice car… as long as it isn’t as fancy as the one we drive.  Comes the Torah, and demands, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, while you cannot truly love others as you love yourself, you can want others to have כמוך, as much or more than you.  You can be happy for them.

Nechama Leibowitz z”l quotes an opinion that holds we are, in fact, absolutely obligated to love another כמוך; however, we need to re-think our understanding of the word. כמוך doesn’t mean love someone as much as you love yourself.  Not only is that standard impossible, but we cannot fully control or regulate our emotions or how much we love someone.  So what is כמוך and how do we fulfill this mitzvah?  To truly understand כמוך, we must look to where it is used earlier in the Torah.  When Yosef hides his identity from his brothers and holds Binyamin hostage, Yehuda steps up and approaches his brother:

 וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֘ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה:

Parshas Vayigash opens with Yehuda telling his brother: “if you please, may I speak a word in your ears and let not your anger flare up at me because you are like Pharaoh.”  כמוך  here means “you are similar to.”

ואהבת לרעך כמוך doesn’t mean love your neighbor as you love yourself.  It means love your neighbor. Why? כמוך – because he or she is similar to you.  You both possess the same spark of life, the same Godly soul, you both have strengths and weaknesses, you both have virtues and faults, you both have things to be proud of and areas to work on. 

We cannot love others, certainly not all others, as much as we love ourselves, but we certainly can learn to love.  Why should we and how can we?  כמוך – because if you can cut away their different type of kippa or their lack of a kippa altogether, if you ignore that they dress differently, act differently, think differently, if you cut away their idiosyncrasies and habits that drive you crazy you will find they are כמוך, just like you. 

Rebbe Akiva witnessed the failure of thousands of his students to learn this lesson.  They focused on their differences rather than choosing to embrace their similarities and the result was that they couldn’t see themselves in one another, they could not relate or identify.  They saw their fellow student as different, the other, and this caused them to disrespect one another.  Rebbe Akiva attended thousands of funerals and delivered thousands of eulogies as his students were cut down by a punitive plague and he turned around and taught, ואהבת לרעך כמוך is the כלל גדול בתורה, the primary principle of the Torah. 

It is not a coincidence that the same Rebbe Akiva is quoted in Pirkei Avos as teaching us חביב אדם שנברא בצלם, precious is every person because we were all created in the image of God.  Knowing and internalizing that concept is the secret of loving everyone.

We may not have the capacity to love others as much as ourselves but we can do a whole lot better at loving others, especially those who are different than us, by focusing on the כמוך, that as different as they seem, they are in truth just like us.  Loving those who are just like you in hashkafa, Halacha and are your dear friends is wonderful, but it is not real ahavas yisroel.  Genuine ahavas yisroel means peeling back the layers of that which separates us from others until we find common ground and that which connects us.  

But how do we express that love? Is loving a fellow Jew just about tolerating them?

R’ Moshe Leib Sassover used to tell his chassidim that he learned what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka.  One of them yelled to his friend, “Do you love me?” The friend, somewhat surprised, answered, “Of course, of course I love you!”  “No, no”, insisted the first one, “Do you really love me, really?!”  The friend assured him, “Of course I love you. You’re my best friend!”  “Tell me, do you know what I need?  Do you know why I am in pain?”  The friend said, “how could I possibly know what you need or why you are in pain?”  The first peasant answered, “How then can you say you love me when you don’t know what I need or why I am in pain.”

R’ Moshe Leib told his chassidim that he learned from these two peasants that truly loving someone means to know their needs and to feel their pain. 

Real love is not lip service, it is not just tolerating one another.  Love is noticing someone is having a bad day, it is feeling their pain, it is showing someone you care, even when that person is someone you barely know or don’t know at all. 

The blessings of Birchos HaShachar are said in the plural – פוקח עורים, מלביש ערומים, etc. There is one exception – שעשה לי כל צרכי thank you God, who fulfills all of my needs.  Why is this blessing written in the singular?

The same R’ Moshe Leib Sassover, who taught us what it means to love a fellow Jew, explains that when it comes to ourselves, we should have an attitude that I have everything I need.  We should feel content and satisfied.  But, when it comes to others, we must be thinking – he or she doesn’t have everything they need.  What are they lacking?  How can I help them?  What can I do for them?

There are people around us hurting, lacking, or in pain.  While this is unfortunately true year-round, it is especially true in this moment in time. If we claim to love these people them, we cannot fail to notice.  While for many of us Shabbos these days is the happiest, most restful day of the week, for others, it is filled with stress, anxiety and pain.  Imagine living alone and each week as Shabbos approaches finding yourself dreading the 25 hours away from the phone, the computer, any meaningful social interaction. With the days getting later, imagine the prospect of a long Shabbos day by yourself.  How much of a nap and how much reading can you do before you feel lonely?  This is one example of many people and populations we claim to love, but we aren’t doing a great job of showing it. If you love them you reach out during the week, maybe set up a time to check in with them on Shabbos consistent with social distancing policies and the guidelines we have previously sent out. If we love the people whose businesses or livelihoods are taking a significant hit from this crisis, how are we creatively and sensitively finding ways to help them, support them, or just let them know we are thinking about them?

The sefer Kavanas Ha’Ari advises that before beginning davening in the morning, one should say: הריני מקבל עלי מצות ואהבת לרעך כמוך, I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to “Love your fellow as yourself.”  Based on R’ Moshe Leib Sassover’s insight, we can understand this in a new light. Before we can pour out our hearts to Hashem for all of our needs, we must pause to think about our fellow man and their needs.  Before we ask Hashem to be there for us, we must commit to be there for others.