By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour

Twenty four thousand of the leading Torah scholars of the Jewish people, perished during a 33-day period – not by the sword – but by an illness decreed from Hashem. According to a mishna in masechet Yevamot, these disciples of the venerated Rabbi Akiva, died in the weeks following Pesah, due to their failure to treat one another with the proper measure of respect. This calamity is the source of the custom to observe mourning practices each year during this period, to recall and reflect upon the catastrophic loss of life and scholarship, and the mistakes that led to this devastating tragedy.

Appropriately enough, it is also during this period when we read Parashat Kedoshim, the section of the Torah which presents the famous command, “Ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha – Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva’s students, it appears, failed to fulfill this command to its fullest extent. Of course, these were Torah giants of the highest caliber, to whom we cannot possibly ascribe malicious backstabbing as we know it, or even petty competition. If the Gemara tells us that these bastions of Torah did not treat each other respectfully, it must mean that they fell short of meeting the highest standards of “Love your fellow as yourself.” Perhaps the more advanced students did not invest as much time as they should have into assisting the lower-level students, choosing instead to devote themselves to their own growth. The harsh punishment visited upon Rabbi Akiva’s students demonstrates just how indispensable this command of “Love your fellow” is to Torah life. Students of Torah must first master the art of ahavat Yisrael, of loving their fellow Jews, before pursuing Torah scholarship. As the Sages famously exhort, “Derech eress kadma le’Torah – proper manners precede Torah.” One must first refine his character and interpersonal conduct before embarking on the spiritual journey of Torah learning.

The Student’s Prayer

How critical is derech eress to Torah learning? The Shulhan Aruch rules, based on the Talmud, that before a student begins learning Torah each day, he should recite a brief prayer composed by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakaneh. In this prayer, the student prays that he should not err in his learning, but also that he should not revel in mistakes made by his peers, and that they should not revel in his errors. This is what yeshiva and kollel students must have in mind each morning as they enter the study hall and prepare to learn: that they are committed to treating each other respectfully, that they will act with derech eress.

Anyone who has entered a Bet Midrash has seen students arguing with one another, often intensely, about the subject matter. The Talmud speaks of Torah learning as “milhamtah shel Torah– the war of Torah.” Students who are passionate about arriving at the truth will “fight” with those who disagree. But the Talmud also says that at the end of the day, the “warring” students are close friends who love and admire each other. The process of learning might outwardly appear as a “war,” but inside, the students must feel mutual love and respect. Therefore, even before they open the books, they offer a prayer to Gd asking for His help in ensuring that the intense learning does not degenerate into petty competition and one-upmanship, which threatens to undermine the sanctity of Torah study.

Weeds in the Garden

Animosity towards one fellow Jews is like weeds growing in one’s garden. No matter how many seeds one plants and no matter how much he waters them, the flowers cannot blossom. Similarly, we Torah Jews must remove the weeds of sin’at hinam (baseless hatred) from our “garden.” We cannot hope to grow in religious observance, Torah knowledge or devotion to Gd as long as these damaging weeds are present. “Derech eress kadma le’Torah.” Before anything else, we must learn to treat each other kindly, lovingly and respectfully, and eliminate feelings of hatred and ill-will toward our brothers and sisters.

Unfortunately, we all know of cases of observant Jews who failed to follow this fundamental rule. We have all felt embarrassed, at one point or another, by otherwise religious Jews who acted or act with hostility toward other Jews. Just as unfortunate is the fact that most of the time, we react to these incidents by simply complaining and lamenting. What we should be doing instead is redoubling our efforts to improve our own ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews). Our response to sin’at hinam must be ahavat hinam; the unseemly conduct we observe should prompt us to work even harder to refine our characters and treat others with the respect, regard and sensitivity they deserve.

And this is the season earmarked for working to improve our ahavat Yisrael. As we mourn the tragic loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students, bringing to mind their failure to live up to the ideal of “Love your fellow as yourself,” we should focus our attention on our own pursuit of this ideal. The rabbis teach that every season has a certain spiritual power which makes it the opportune time to grow in specific areas of Torah observance. The weeks after Pesah afford us the unique opportunity to grow in the area of ahavat Yisrael, to improve the way we speak and act toward our fellow Jews.

Don’t Start Up with the Prince

The commandment of “Love your fellow as yourself” is well-known even among gentiles. It has become a universal proverb championed and taught by people across the Western world.

However, there is one critical difference between the Torah concept of “Love your fellow as yourself” and the concept advocated by members of other faiths. In order to fully understand thismissva, one needs to read it in its entirety: “Ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha, ani Hashem – Love your fellow as yourself, I am Hashem.” In other faiths, one should love his fellow because it is intuitively beneficial for society. For us, lehavdil, loving others is necessary also because “I am Hashem,” by virtue of our commitment to the Almighty.

All people – the righteous, the wicked, and everyone in between – are created in the Divine image. Every human being is a reflection of Gd Himself. Mistreating another person is thus a grave infringement upon Gd’s honor. What right do we have to unjustly denigrate or cause distress to one of Gd’s representatives in the world?

Regarding the Jewish people, the Torah teaches, “Banim atem l’Hashem Elokechem– You are the children of Hashem your Gd” (Devarim 14:1). One who harasses a fellow Jew is, in effect, harassing the prince, the King’s son. How kindly would Gd look upon those who frivolously bring hostility to His children? True, there may be things about some fellow Jews that disturb us, that we don’t like. But they are Hashem’s children, and for that reason alone, we have no right to cause them harm or to speak to them offensively.

Praying for the Misguided

The more difficult question that arises when speaking about ahavat Yisrael is, what about those lost souls among the Jewish people? Unfortunately, we know that many Jews flagrantly ignore, reject or even scorn the Torah values that we hold dear. Shouldn’t we have the right to exhibit our exasperation toward them? Considering their rejection of the Torah, isn’t it part of our mission to treat these wrongdoers with hostility?

The answer is a resounding and categorical “No.”

If we look in the Torah, we will find a very clear precedent for us to follow in this regard. Avraham Avinu was the bastion of kindness. If we would quit our jobs and devote the rest of our lives to nothing else but hesed, we still would not even come near the level that Avraham achieved in this area. Among the most famous of his deeds was an incident involving a nearby city called Sedom that was characterized by selfishness and cruelty. Its residents were ideologically opposed to the entire notion of kindness and generosity. In a real sense, they represented the polar opposite of everything that Avraham championed – sensitivity, compassion, giving, honesty and faith in Gd.

How would we imagine Avraham felt toward his ideological adversaries? Could we have blamed him for disliking and resenting them for the deliberate disregard in the way they treated people?

Yet, when Gd informed Avraham of His plans to destroy the city and all its residents, Avraham pleaded on their behalf. He did not want to see them destroyed. Avraham cared for all people, even for the people of Sedom. He begged Gd to spare the city, reasoning that the merit of even a small group of worthy people who may be living there should protect all the residents. Gd agreed that He would not overturn Sedom if 50 righteous people could be found in the city, bet there were not 50 righteous among the people of Sedom. So Avraham pleaded to lower the number to 45, and even 45 could not be found. So Avraham continued to lower the bar and eventually, he securing Gd’s promise that even if only ten pious people lived there, the city would have been spared.

Avraham volunteered to come to the defense of a city that opposed – to an extreme – everything he represented and championed. These were his supreme ideological enemies. Of course, he worked tirelessly to resist the city’s influence, to spread the message of hesed. But his stern opposition to their conduct did not undermine his love for them as people. He cared for them and valued their life. And he did not want any harm to befall them.

Remarkably, the Zoharcriticizes Avraham for the way he handled the situation. No, Avraham is not criticized for praying on behalf of sinners; to the contrary, he is called to task for not going far enough. The Zoharcomments that Avraham should not have stopped at ten. Once Gd agreed to spare the city if He found ten worthy citizens, Avraham should have continued petitioning, and demanded that Gd lower the number even further.

Avraham appealed for compassion on behalf of a corrupt, sinful city – and he is criticized for not doing enough! This is the extent to which we must love, cherish and care for all people, even for the opponents of Torah!

Rav Yizhak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno (Lithuania, 1816-1895) illustrated this concept through an analogy to a Torah scroll. A Torah scroll is disqualified for use if it is missing even a single letter. It makes no difference, Rav Yizhak Elchanan noted, whether the Torah is missing the letter memfrom the name of Moshe, or the letter memfrom the word mekoshesh– the word describing the first man who desecrated the Shabbat (Bamidbar 15:33). Similarly, we need each and every member of the Jewish Nation, from “Moshe” to the “mekoshesh.” Of course, we want all Jews to be strictly observant. But this does not undermine our obligation to love all Jews irrespective of their current religious stature. They are all an integral part of Am Yisrael, and the missva of ahavat Yisraelapplies equally to them.

Students of Aharon Hakohen

Several generations after Avraham, one of his illustrious descendants followed his example of showing love and concern for sinners.

The Mishna in Avot admonishes, “Be among the students of Aharon Hakohen, who loved peace and pursued peace, loved people and brought them close to Torah.” Rav Sheneur Zalman of Liadi (Russia, 1745-1813) noted the unusual term used here by the Mishna in reference to people – “beriyot” (literally, “creatures”). Why didn’t the Mishna employ the more common term, “anashim”? The rabbi explained that “beriyot” refers specifically to people of a low spiritual stature, as opposed to “anashim,” which is usually used to describe people of distinction. The Mishna emphasizes Aharon’s love for the “beriyot,” for the sinners, as indicated by the concluding clause, “and brought them close to Torah.” Aharon realized that the way to bring people close to Torah is through love and affection, not through resentment and harsh criticism. It was through the display of genuine fondness and admiration for every Jew that he succeeded in bringing sinners closer to Torah observance.

And this should be our attitude toward our fellow Jews who do not share our level of observance. Hostility and insults will only drive them further away from Torah. We should never think that we show our love for Gd by despising less-observant Jews. Quite to the contrary, if we truly love Hashem then we must make an extra effort to show our fellow Jews the beauty and splendor of Torah life. This is done not through condescension and arrogance, and certainly not through hatred and hostility, but rather through genuine love and sensitivity.

It goes without saying that we must take an uncompromising stand with regard to our observance. Our love for fellow Jews does not mean that we may join our less-observant friends in recreational activities that are forbidden or inappropriate. But when we are presented with an invitation to such an event, we must decline politely and respectfully, without an arrogant, “holier than thou” attitude.

Ahavat Yisraelin Action

A friend of mine once related to me his experience with a rabbi who followed this approach of Aharon Hakohen. Once when he was younger, this friend was playing baseball with a group of other boys on Shabbat afternoon. Suddenly, his rabbi happened to walk by near the field. My friend quickly dropped his glove and ran behind the bushes, hoping that the rabbi wouldn’t see him.

Later that afternoon, at minha, the rabbi approached the boy and shook his hand.

“You should know,” the rabbi said, “you did a very good thing today.”

The young man looked at the rabbi with a blank face, wondering what kind of “good thing” he had done.

“I noticed that when you saw me passing by the field, you quickly ran to hide. I respect that very much. It shows that you are embarrassed about playing ball on Shabbat, and I commend you for that.”

Rather than lacing into the boy, the rabbi complimented him. And this was far more effective in bringing the youngster closer to Torah observance than any harsh words of criticism.

Another incident involved a Jewish man who lived near a synagogue and was getting into his car to go to work early in the morning one Shabbat. Suddenly, somebody from the synagogue came and asked if he could come inside to complete the minyan.

The man was flabbergasted. He had always assumed that he was unwelcome in the synagogue, since he worked on Shabbat. And yet, lo and behold, he was not only welcome, but also given a personal invitation! The synagogue members still respected him enough to want him to complete their minyanand pray with them! The warm feelings he experienced that day led him to draw closer to Torah observance.

It is through love, not hostility, that we inspire our fellow Jews with the warmth and beauty of Torah.

The students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) once approached their revered rabbi before leaving for the local massa factory to bake massot for Pesah. They asked him if there were any special humrot– stringent measures – that he felt should be taken during the process of baking massot, or any specific laws that they needed to remember.

“Yes,” the rabbi answered. “When you’re at the factory, make sure to speak politely to the widows hired by the factory to knead the dough.”

If we are looking for stringencies, especially during this time of the year, then we should act stringently in our conduct with other people, in our manners and etiquette. This is particularly true in the home, where it is often more difficult to exercise patience. Ahavat Yisraelbegins at home, in the way we speak to our spouses, children, siblings and parents. This extra effort will carry forward and help us strive to treat all our fellow Jews with respect and courtesy, thus doing our share to bring our nation together in peace, happiness and mutual love.

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