Yael and I were lost. I thought that the walking directions from our hotel to the Chabad in Salt Lake City that I remembered were clear. However, we made a wrong turn late Friday afternoon and we were lost. We ended up at a park with a lot of unsavory looking individuals, but we found a nice couple and asked them if they could direct us to the address where the Chabad was. Unfortunately, the couple told us that they couldn’t help us. At this point in time, there was little chance of arriving at the Chabad in time for mincha, but maybe if we somehow could find our way, we could arrive in time for maariv. We kept on walking, hoping to find our way.
About five minutes later, a car pulled up next to us. It was that nice couple that we met at the park. They asked us if we wanted a ride to where we were going. Ever since we left them at the park, they went searching for us in the hopes of helping us find where we wanted to go. Now I hadn’t accepted Shabbat, but Yael did back at the hotel when she kindled the Shabbat lights. I thanked the couple but told them that my wife accepted the Sabbath so we couldn’t accept their ride. They understood because after all, they were Mormons and religiously celebrated their Sabbath on Sunday. I asked them to plug the address of the Chabad into their navigation system so that I could find out where I went wrong and what were the correct directions to the Chabad from my current location. Yael and I soon realized that we had made a left turn when we should have made a right turn and now we knew where to go. We thanked the couple, turned around, walked for about twenty minutes, and arrived at the Chabad in the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat.
As I was reflecting on the act of kindness by this couple who searched for us to offer us a ride, I wondered to myself whether I would have done the same if our roles were reversed. Would I have offered a lost couple of a different faith a ride? Perhaps out of a concern for safety I might not offer a stranger a ride, but would I feel the same sense of empathy for someone of a different faith that this couple expressed for my wife and me.
We now find ourselves during the time period of the “Three Weeks” when we reflect upon the destruction of our Batei Mikdash and the spiritual causes for their destruction. In particular, one area of focus during this time period is the grave sin of “sinat chinam,” which literally means baseless hatred. In Orot HaKodesh, Rav Kook writes, “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with ahavat chinam, baseless love.”
I think that the general assumption when we try to work on this midda, or character trait, is that we work on increasing love between Jews. After all, the classic story of sinat chinam in the gemara was the story of hatred between an unnamed Jew and Bar Kamtza, another Jew. The Biblical mitzva of “v-ahavta l’rei-acha ka-mocha,” of loving another, is specifically understood by the rabbis as loving another Jew. We bemoan the lack of achdut, of unity, during this time period specifically between Jews.
It seems to me that if we truly want to work on cultivating a personality of ahavat chinam, then we should not limit expressing our love towards Jews, but we should direct our love to Jews and non-Jews alike, the way that the Mormon couple directed their love to Yael and me. First of all, we should imitate God who is “rachamav al kol maasav,” whose mercy extends to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike. Additioally, on a practical level, even if the technical mitzva of “v-ahavta l’rei-acha ka-mocha” might only apply to our behavior towards Jews, it is very difficult to truly cultivate this midda if we carve out exceptions. After all, once we say that there is no value to loving a non-Jew because he or she is the “other,” then we will likely do the same with a whole host of people whom we classify as the “other,” such as those with whom we disagree on religious or political grounds. Strong belief in our religious or political positions does not preclude a strong belief in the God-given humanity of every single person. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who heroically led our people in the aftermath of the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, exemplified this midda of ahavat chinam. After all, the gemara in Brachot 17a states that he was known as someone who always initiated a greeting to everyone, both Jews and non-Jews alike, that he encountered in the marketplace. If we model Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s behavior and we have no carveouts for our love of others and if we view everyone, Jew and non-Jew, as a tzelem Elokim that is deserving our love, then that is the most effective way of cultivating a personality of ahavat chinam during the time period in which we find ourselves.