Three of the most important words in the Torah are found in this week’s parasha: “V’ahavta l’raiacha komocha” — “Love your fellow as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18]. Rabbi Akiva said that this is the Klal Gadol — a fundamental principle of the Torah. Hillel a century earlier said that “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary” [Talmud Shabbat 31A]. The Gospels and the Koran adopted this principle as their own, indicating its importance in world civilization.
Too often overlooked is that, almost identically, the three words are repeated only 16 verses later. When speaking of the Ger, the stranger, the proselyte, it says, “V’ahavta lo komocha,” [Lev. 19:34], “Love him as yourself.” In describing the object of this love, in the first instance he is described as your fellow, your neighbor, your friend. As to the Ger, he is just a “him.” Why? It is much easier to love someone who is like yourself, someone who thinks like you and is easily compatible with your own self. The stranger who may be very different could present a challenge. But the Torah equates the two when it comes to how we are commanded to relate to one another.
Today, 75 years after the end of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is once again rearing its ugly head. Acts of violence have become more commonplace. I shudder to think of how this virulent disease will manifest itself at the next sharp economic downturn, which may be now or coming soon. How the Jewish community should react to these despicable manifestations has been a subject of much debate within our community.
Internecine strife has been a plague among Jews throughout our history. This year, not only our own people but the entire world has been stricken with another plague, the coronavirus. We all need protection from the forces that rain death and disease among us all. The pandemic will end; but anti-Semitism has been a more long-lasting problem.
Some years ago I read a Midrash that I had to reread three times to make sure I was not misinterpreting the words: “Rabbi Elazar Hakapar says: ‘Peace is so important, that even if the Jews practice Avodah Zara (idolatry), but do it in one Chaburah (one fellowship), the attribute of strict justice (Midat Hadin) will not harm them’” [Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Tzav 7:1].
Idolatry is one of the three cardinal sins that are a capital crime, but to God peace among His people is a priority, a mighty shield to protect them from serious harm.
About three years ago after reading that amazing Midrash and seeing the developing cancer of Jew hatred, a plan was formulated: Operation Achdut (Unity), with the goal of engendering a feeling of oneness among all Jews, with togetherness despite our differences. Its brochure states on the cover page the following: “Achdut is civility, not agreement; diversity, sameness; variety, not uniformity; color, not monochrome; wants to change attitudes, not minds; wants to stop the fighting, not stop the disagreement.”
The new wrinkle here is that whether we admit it or not, relationships among others, especially in recent years, have gotten frayed not just at the edges but through the whole cloth. Tolerance and respect for another’s viewpoint has become a rare commodity. Asking each of us to love the other, the Klal Gadol, has become a difficult task. The goal is to bring back civility and affection among all Jews despite our differences.
One thing we can do as a start is beginning the day with a pledge introduced by the Arizal (Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, 1534-1572): “I hereby take upon myself the positive commandment of ‘love your fellow as yourself’ (“Haraini mekabel alai mitzvat asai shel v’Ahavta l’raiacha kamocha”). For those who pray every morning, it should be said at the very beginning of the service. There are some prayer books that already contain these words. For those who do not have a fixed prayer schedule, this pledge can begin his/her day.
Frankly, this goal is a high mountain to climb. But I truly believe that if we can get Operation Achdut started, the Jewish people the world over will have added a strong layer of Divine Protection for our people and an example for everyone else to emulate. It is something we will need in the weeks, months and years ahead. Rabbi Akiva knew whereof he spoke; the rest is commentary.
Fred Ehrman is a retired investment adviser and security analyst. He has held leadership positions in several Jewish organizations. He is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi.
Shabbat Candles: 7:34 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 9:1-11:47
Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1-19
Havdalah: 8:36 p.m.