This week I remembered a friend I haven’t seen in many years. Tzachi Ben-Tov joined my second grade class in 1977; he was a classmate till sixth grade. Each year we were joined by a number of Israeli kids in our class as their diplomat parents came to New York for various government appointments. They would often know little to no English; we were not, I’m not proud to say, always so nice to them. These kids, we thought, were different. They didn’t know how to dress like we did, what books, TV shows and music we were talking about, or what games we played at recess. We therefore were not as welcoming as we should have been.
The second of this week’s two parshiyot, Kedoshim, has some fifty-one mitzvot. One is not to hate another person “in your heart:” lo tisna et achicha bi-levavecha. Rabbi Zalman Sorotskin in his Oznayim LaTorah notes that in Hebrew, this sentence is a little clunky. If the hate is in your heart, he notes, it should say lo tisna bi-levavecha et achicha. (This makes much more sense in Hebrew.) Why this word order?
We often dislike those, explains Rabbi Sorotzkin, who are our brothers or sisters (sometimes, as we’ve seen in our homes, quite literally). This is because those who are similar to us make us feel uncomfortable and sometimes even jealous of what they have achieved or what they own. We tell ourselves that we dislike them, but what we are actually doing is burying our own feelings of inadequacy.
By fifth grade, Tsachi Ben-Tov was literally playing Romeo in our class play of Romeo and Juliet. But before middle school began, Tzachi’s family moved back to Israel and we lost what little personal connection we had. That is until years later. In September 1997, I learned what had become of Tzachi: he had become a doctor and a chovesh; he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Yitzchak “Tzachi” Ben-Tov was killed on September 4, 1997 when his naval commando unit was attacked during an operation in Lebanon. This week of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut seem the right time to tell his story once again.
If we would only purge our negative feelings, Rabbi Sorotzkin explains, we would realize that those we dislike are actually our achicha bi-levavecha, they are our “siblings:” they have the same goals and the same values that we have. Tzachi Ben-Tov, for all intents and purposes, was my brother.
This is key advice at a time when we have been cooped up for so long and we sometimes bicker over the least significant issues. This is not only a lesson for us now stuck in our homes, but for us all when we return to school and to work. This week we shared dozens of experiences together, united over our love for the State of Israel and those who have sacrificed for and built it. Zoom allowed us to join with people from our community and the greater New York community, with parents, with teachers, and with current and veteran shlichot from Israel. The unity aspect of our programs was remarkable.
Recognizing our brothers and sisters for what we all share can be yet another silver lining for us all. May we hold onto it.