Judah Kerbel

Ahavat Yisrael in Challenging Times

Before I begin, my goal today is to think aloud a little bit through the prism of Torah. I do not believe that rabbis have all of the right solutions to the big problems of the world. But I hope today’s drasha will give us a framework for struggling with important issues.

I have to admit that I have been fairly preoccupied the last couple of weeks beyond the regular work that I perform. Two vastly different issues have been on my mind. In the positive sense, we have reached a new milestone in our fight against the coronavirus that has allowed our community to loosen restrictions for those who are vaccinated. This is a great achievement and we pray that very soon we will reach the point where we can resume fully normal lives in good health. But this development necessitated my paying attention to best practices and helping develop the new protocol we have. The second issue is far more tragic. Sadly, we are aware of the terrorism Hamas has been perpetrating against Israel. I spent a lot of time looking at the news, and I have been constantly thinking about this situation and praying for it to stop. Especially as a social media user, though, I have been consumed with the expressions of solidarity on the one hand, but also have seen a lot of negative sentiment towards Israel.

It is these two vastly different issues, COVID-19 and Israel, that I realize have challenged my Ahavat Yisrael in vastly different ways this past year.

Much of what we do in shul can feel mechanical and ceremonious. We say some words, the chazzan says some words, someone carries the Torah in a particular direction, puts it down, lifts it up, takes it back. An outside observer would only see these technicalities. Birkat Kohanim is not much different. A few men ascend the stage, raise their hands while saying some words, and the congregation responds.

But what is happening internally at that time?

Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva that while awe and fear are baseline components of serving God, a higher form of serving God is to serve God with love. We should do all mitzvot with love. Yet, there is one mitzvah where we single out love in the bracha, and that is Birkat Kohanim. אשר קדשנו בקדושתו של אהרן וצונו לברך את עמו ישראל באהבה – who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and commanded us to bless the people of Israel out of love. Why here do we emphasize love?

Furthermore, the Magen Avraham commentary on the Shulchan Aruch quotes the Zohar, stating that a Kohen who does not love the people he is blessing or is not beloved by the people he is blessing should not give the blessing. And therefore, says the Aruch Hashulchan, the kohanim have to have in mind when they duchen that they love the Jewish people, and the people have to accept upon themselves their love of the kohanim. Why the emphasis on love in this particular mitzvah?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that “kohen’s blessing is a reflection of the divine love that the Almighty has for His own creatures, as the Shechinah dwells between the kohen’s fingertips.” In other words, love is not just a means towards doing the mitzvah but is inherent to the mitzvah itself. The mitzvah cannot be fulfilled without love. If the kohanim do not love the people, and the people do not love the kohanim, the mitzvah is obstructed. Therefore, in the Rav’s words, “Birkat Kohanim is unique because it requires heartfelt love for its fulfillment” (Mesoras HaRav Chumash, p. 46-47).

These details about Birkat Kohanim remind us of the importance of Ahavat Yisrael. Kohanim do not get to choose their audience, and the people do not get to choose their kohanim. Furthermore, if the kohen/Jew do not know each other, they must assume love without knowing anything about the other besides their externalities. We are talking about a very basic love of every Jew.

Yet, ahavat Yisrael is easy to talk about – it is easy to talk about loving Jews who look differently than you. It is trite to simply say that you should love the Jew who wears a bekishe or doesn’t wear a kippah in a theoretical way. What about when that love is difficult? What happens when one is upset?

When it comes to COVID-19, for a very long time I was exasperated by those parts of the Torah community that seemingly were not heeding the medical and legal guidance. In some ways, much of that did not affect me personally, but I could not fathom how a world that cares about chumra was all too willing to push the envelope and cut corners to gloss over matters of pikuach nefesh. I felt Torah and halacha was being distorted, and am also sensitive to issues of chilul Hashem, when Torah observant Jews act in public in a way that causes other people to think negatively of Torah. On top of that, it was, in fact, aggravating on a personal level to walk into businesses in a nearby Jewish neighborhood where people were not wearing masks.

But I realized that it is possible to love someone and frustrated at the same time. Most close relationships where there is real love also may involve some frustration at some points. I do not think I ever stopped loving Jews who dealt with COVID differently than I did. It is precisely because we are on the same team and because we believe in the same Torah that I wished that they would handle the virus differently. While leading rabbanim and frum doctors we look to were emphatic about their expectations of carefulness during COVID-19, they also were forthcoming in saying that demeaning others is unproductive, that we must emphasize what we have in common, and that we will move on from this when the pandemic is over. And as we begin to reach that end, I am appreciating that sentiment very much. There will still be differences between different communities of different hashkafos, but disagreements do not provide due cause for dispensing with one’s Ahavat Yisrael. We will learn Torah with each other, support each others’ accomplishments, and help each other in times of need.

The next issue, however, is a bit more raw.

What has been going on surrounding current events related to Medinat Yisrael has also been deeply connected to Ahavat Yisrael. My feelings for two straight weeks have been those of concern and care for my friends and family running in and out of bomb shelters. From my perspective, the epicenter of the Jewish people is the State of Israel, and when they are facing tribulation, it carries over to the rest of us. I do not oppose criticism of the Israeli government and have plenty of it. But criticism must only come from a place of identifying with the well-being of the Jewish people living in the Jewish home. Ahavat Yisrael has been very real in that sense.

However, we know that there are many people in our country and throughout the world that do not identify with Israel’s sorrows. That has been true since the days of the yishuv one hundred years ago. There was a time also where Jewish support of Israel was tepid out of an insecurity of what it means to be an American Jew not wanting to rock the boat. But then came 1967, and the tides turned. Jews had never been prouder to be Jewish and support Israel. And then more than ever, in recent years, instead of 1967 being a source of pride, it has become a symbol of sin. A constantly and increasingly growing number of Jews look askance at Israel’s power. It is with that mindset that, most disturbingly, a group of rabbinical students coming from a variety of liberal rabbinical schools wrote an open letter invoking Eicha and maamarei Chazal not to bemoan the destruction of synagogues resulting from riots, not to empathize with Jews hiding from rockets launched from Gaza, but to identify solely with the plight of Palestinians and cry for the scenes in Gaza. Now, I too wish that innocent Palestinians would not lose their homes and children would not lose their lives! But as Rabbi Bradley Artson, the dean of one of the schools, responded, not a word about the murderous tyranny of Hamas? In his words, “There wasn’t a word about Ahavat Yisrael – a love and solidarity with our fellow Jews in Israel, with the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in our own homeland, to the very real sacrifices this experiment in Jewish national self-expression has imposed from its inception. Eich yitachen – how is this possible?! This attitude instills within me a great deal of anger and disenchantment!

But a Jew is a Jew and is my family, even if they do not identify with the State of Israel. There are Jews on the right and the left who do not support Zionism and yet identify with Jewish peoplehood at large. They learn Torah and keep mitzvot. We have common ground; they are part of our people. I commit myself to love them no less, despite my anger. Because in the absence of love will grow more hatred and more division, and that is the last thing we need. Fight antagonism with love – show that our fight for Ahavat Yisrael will only take place with Ahavat Yisrael. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l taught the proximity of the command to give rebuke and the command to love a fellow Jew teaches us that we do not have to be angels, but we cannot hate. Instead, we must confront and have dialogue, and thereby achieve love. 

This struggle is not new. We just celebrated Shavuot. ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר – כאיש אחד, בלב אחד – אבל שאר החניות בתרעומת ובמחלוקת – “and Israel was encamped by the mountain” – “like one man with one heart, but the rest of the encampments were with strife and controversy” (Shemot 19:2, Rashi). It is not just at Har Sinai that we are commanded to love fellow Jews, when we are of one mind and a united heart – but even in the midst of our most bitter disagreements. Our dream is not that we end up with greater divisiveness but to come closer together and share in Ahavat Yisrael. 

We can be greatly frustrated and even angry with other Jews – but if I were a kohen and I were to ascend for Birkat Kohanim, I would bless each one of these Jews with love.

יברכך ה’ וישמרך – may Hashem bless the Jewish people and guard it from rockets in Israel and antisemitism in the streets of New York City and Los Angeles. May Hashem bring us closer to full health.

וישם לך שלום – may there be peace and unity among the Jewish people.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and a development associate for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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