On June 6, over 2,000 people from every denomination, background and affiliation attended the Boca Raton Jewish community Unity Day Event. These remarks were delivered there.
“Can he unite the party?” “Can she unite the party?” Everyone is talking about unity these days. But it is a unity with an agenda, to win in November. Tonight, we gather with no agenda other than to experience Jewish unity and, in so doing, to be winners each and every day.
I want to share with you what I believe is the secret to achieving unity. The key to achieve harmony in our greater families and to realize unity in our community and our people is that we must learn to love everyone, even those that we don’t like.
We all have people we don’t like. Their personality grates on us, their lifestyle may offend us, maybe their political orientation or sense of style or their decisions disappoint us and we cannot relate to them whatsoever. We don’t like them. And that is ok. Nowhere does it say we have to like everyone.
However, “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” it does say we have to love our neighbor as ourselves. What is the difference between liking and loving? How can I be commanded to love? After all, love is an emotion, not something you can simply legislate or regulate.
Like is an emotion. I like people I admire, I like those that I share similarities with, or whom I relate to or connect with. Love, however, is not an emotion; it is a decision. Love is a verb. It doesn’t describe how I feel about you; it describes how I treat you. To love someone is to be loyal, devoted, courteous, kind, thoughtful, giving, and caring. The Hebrew word for love is ahava, which comes from the root hav, which means to give. Love is the result of giving to another, investing ourselves in another, and building bridges that connect us to one another.
Almost everyone has at least one member of his or her family, sometimes immediate and sometimes distant, who we don’t like. We may not approve of their lifestyle or their choices or we can’t stand their ego or personality. But nevertheless, despite not liking them, we know that we must love them. After all, that is what it means to be a family. A family practices loyalty and can expect commitment and kindness even among the members who don’t like one another.
We, the Jewish people, all 13 million of us in the world, are one big family. We likely don’t approve of, or admire, or enjoy, or like, every member of our great big family, and that is alright. We don’t have to like them everyone, but we must love them all. That’s what ahavas yisroel, loving all Jews, is all about.
We often hear of a call for greater tolerance, but tolerance is not what we need. We tolerate a bad rash or we tolerate the side effects of medicine or we tolerate a poor Wi-Fi connection. We must never tolerate people. We must love them and we must love them even when—especially when—we don’t like them.
We as a people were never at a higher level spiritually than when we came out of Egypt. We merited witnessing the open hand of the Almighty as He executed the ten plagues and split the sea and yet He didn’t give us his precious Torah at that time. There was something missing from our collective character and practice. It was only when we stood as a nation at the base of the Mount Sinai k’ish echad b’lev echad, as one person with one heart, that God was ready to give us His sacred Torah.
This coming weekend we will celebrate that seminal event that changed the world when we re-accept the Torah. The prerequisite now, as it was then, was the capacity to show God, our father, that we get along with and love all of His children, whether we like them or not. There can be no holiday of Shavuos without the commitment to unity first.
Rav Aryeh Levin was known as the tzadik of Yerushalayim, the righteous man of Jerusalem. He was incredibly pious, kind, and a great scholar. He lived in the quaint area of Nachlaot, right behind the shuk, Machaneh Yehudah. There was a young man who grew up in the neighborhood whom R’ Aryeh knew well but he felt that the boy was avoiding him. One day, they bumped into each other in the narrow alleys of Nachlaot and Rav Aryeh confronted him and said, I can’t help but feel you are avoiding me, tell me how are you. The young man sheepishly replied that it was true, he was avoiding the great rabbi as he had grown up observant but had chosen to walk away from observant life altogether.
He said, “Rebbe, I was so embarrassed to meet you since I have taken off my kippa and am no longer observant.” Rav Aryeh took the young man’s hand into his own and said the following. “My dear Moshe. Don’t worry. I am a very short man. I can only see what is in your heart, I cannot see what is on your head.”
As we count down to receive the Torah anew, let’s pledge to be a little shorter like R’ Aryeh Levin. Let’s only look at what is in our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts and not what is on their heads or anything else that is external. Let us strive not just to tolerate one another, but to practice love even with those we don’t like and in that way get back to that lofty level of one people with one heart.