Where there is love there is life. So said Mahatma Gandhi.
Among dozens of other mitzvot (commandments) laid out in this week’s double Torah portion, one comes along and appears to instruct us how to feel.
We are commanded to love.
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David (Efrat, Israel) tackles an apparent Torah instruction to love everyone. He crafts the question: “Aren’t emotions, by their very nature, beyond the dictums of one’s control?”
And yet so many over generations have been gripped by this very dictate: “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19), preceded in the text by instructions not to hate your brother in your heart nor to bear a grudge against the members of your people.
Rabbi Akiva was arguably the greatest cheerleader of this ideas, calling this a great principle of Torah.
Hefty responsibility. Easier said than done.
Rav Aryeh helps us to navigate this journey of love.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained:
“The loving of our neighbor as we love ourselves is practically impossible to carry out… (rather) we are to rejoice in his good fortune and grieve over his misfortune. We are to assist at everything that furthers his well-being and happiness as if we were working for ourselves, and must keep trouble away from him as assiduously as if it threatened ourselves”.
So it’s not as much about an emotional love but a depth of caring about others’ well-being, safety and growth. But how? How do we reach that level of concern for the other, those different from us, estranged from us or those we have never engaged and interacted with in a meaningful manner?
Comes Maimonidies (Rambam) shares Rabbi Ben David and teaches us a lesson about love. “According to the level of knowledge will be the level of one’s love, if a little – then a little, if a lot – then a lot” (Laws of Repentance 10:6).
Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and get to know them. Understand why they speak, why they act the way they do. Look out at the world with their eyes for a moment.
Over the years I have witnessed this very different kind of “falling in love” when introducing Jewish leaders and leading philanthropists to communities different from their own. I’ve been privileged to be the bridge upon which folks who have never met, never spoken, never shared, have met and opened their ears and their minds to each other. It is thrilling.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews meeting secular Jews. Arab-Israelis meeting Jewish citizens of Israel or Jews from abroad. Those enjoying affluence and stability meeting those who are greeted by an empty fridge and uncertainty every morning. Every night. People who live just footsteps or streets from each other but might as well have been a world away.
Ever-present invisible fences that keep us distant from one another, that do not allow us to see each other, hear each other, learn about each other. To help each other. To pick each other up, to give a helping hand.
This is the power of this “knowledge” that Maimonidies explains. Get to know those who are not like you. Get to know your neighbor, your brothers and sisters.
I have been inspired by so many giving people, donors and community leaders who have ventured out of their comfort zones and their day-to-day routines to explore and to learn about people and peoples not like their own. They have fallen in love with the lives of others – per Rabbi Hirsch – their successes and good fortune together with their grievances and misfortune. And they have joined hands towards a better reality.
When we give, we get. When we listen we learn. When we learn to love, there is life.