Last week, my wife and I had a wonderful time at the Jerusalem Light Festival, as we followed the blue trail from Sha’ar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) to Sha’ar Ashpot (Dung Gate), along the wall of the southern side of the Old City.
As we were leaving the Old city to walk home, a bus full of young Hareidi schoolboys parked outside of the Old City and disgorged its passengers. The boys exuberantly started running downhill towards Sha’ar Ashpot, heading to go in towards the Kotel (Western Wall).
Suddenly a secular man started screaming at them in Hebrew (and I translate) “Run! Run! Run to the army!”, and he repeated himself loudly a number of times. I turned to him and said “Be nice. You don’t know them at all. You are just reacting to how they look, and are spreading Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred). We need more Ahavat Chinam ( love without reason).” Unsurprisingly, he rejected my words with a look of scorn.
This incident reminded me of a trip I took to Israel about 10 years ago (three years before we made Aliyah). I came to join in the celebration of the wedding of a cousin in Bnei Brak (a Haredi community near Tel Aviv). It was summertime, and the heat in that area was making daily life very uncomfortable. I stayed there over Shabbat to take part in the Sheva Brachot (week long post-wedding celebrations). For Shabbat I was dressed in a light colored suit and a straw hat, even as everyone else was wearing black suits and heavy black hats.
At the Shabbat lunch I was asked to speak (in Hebrew). I got up and told them my very favorite Torah message that fortuitously had to do with that week’s Torah portion, Balak.
I told them about the Apter Rav, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, who resided in Apt in Poland in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. He was known for his great love of his fellow Jews, and was therefore called the “Ohev Yisroel” (Lover of Israel). The published collection of his thoughts arranged by the weekly Torah portion was called by that name.
According to one story, he once taught his students that in every Torah portion there is a message about love of fellow Jews. A student asked, “What message is there in the portion of Balak ? ” He answered, “That’s simple. The letters of Balak are an abbreviation of “V’ahafta L’Reiacha Camocha” (you should love your fellow as yourself). The puzzled students asked “But Rebbe, Balak is spelled with a Beis not Vav (as V’ahavta starts), and ends with a Kuf, not Chaf (as Camocha starts). The Apter Rav smiled and answered “If you are particular about every little detail, you never will be able to attain the level of loving your fellow Jews.”
And I told the people at the lunch “Love of fellow Jews is not just love of those with black hats like yourselves. And not even if you add the love of Jews with straw hats. 🙂 It also includes love of Jews who don’t wear hats at all but only wear a kipa. And not just for those with black kippot, but also for those with knitted kippot (national religious Jews). And it even includes love of secular Jews who don’t wear any kipa. Love of fellow Jews means love for everyone regardless of how religious or irreligious they are”
I sat down and wasn’t sure how that message would be received. But I was glad that many of the Haredim came over to congratulate me on my talk.
So today, even more than before, we need to inculcate this message of Balak into our hearts, and hopefully by doing so we can bring the nation of ALL Jews together.