What is it about the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jew that is so complicated?
This question was on my mind recently when I witnessed an extraordinary event. A group of Sephardic, Chasidic, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated, atheist, right- and left-wing Jews were gathered at a private dinner -- and no one had to call security. We all sat at a large table, and shared our thoughts with each other. What struck me was how intently everyone listened. There was a holy glow to the evening, a sense that something special was unfolding.
So I thought: Wow, that was a piece of cake. What happened that created this little miracle of Jewish unity? How could we bottle it so we don't have to wait for private dinners to bring out, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, the "better angels of our nature"? And then I mused: If I was a rabbi (scary thought), what kind of sermon would I give to describe the special mindset that promotes true ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people)?
So here, my friends, in the spirit of Valentine's Day, is a layman's sermon and contribution to this mysterious subject of ahavat Yisrael:
Good Shabbos, and to our Sephardic friends, Shabbat shalom.
Today, I want to challenge you to see love in a different way. For years now, you have heard about the importance of ahavat Yisrael. But now I will stick my neck out and tell you how I think we can live out this great mitzvah of love: We should stop giving to each other and start taking from each other.
Let me explain. It's easy to love in the abstract, when your love is never tested. It's easy to say "I love every Jew" when you are doing all the talking (shut up, I love you!). It's easy because you're the one in control.
But easy is not the Jewish way, and ahavat Yisrael is certainly not easy. You see, life gives us a choice. We can spend the rest of our days with people we always agree with, people who laugh and live and think the way we do. In this cubicle of isolation, we feel safe and comfortable. That's easy love.
Our other choice is to jump the walls and engage the world. While staying true to our own beliefs and traditions, we can meet Jews we're not used to meeting, sing songs we're not used to singing, hear views we're not used to hearing. In other words, we can take from our fellow Jew, even if it makes us uncomfortable. That's hard love, and it's the true test of ahavat Yisrael. Easy love keeps us apart, but hard love bonds us.
Feeling sorry for another Jew because he or she does not have your truth is easy love (even if your truth is that there is only one truth). Trying to save that person is easy love. Loving a million people from afar is easy love. Hard love is when you recognize that your fellow Jews are also created in God's image, and you honor them by letting them give you something. Like Heschel said, the greatest need we have is to feel needed.
When you take from a fellow Jew (and I don't mean money) you allow the person to give a part of himself, and that is the greatest gift. By showing genuine interest, you create a vessel for his giving to enter your heart. You're telling that person: "You're worth a lot to me -- I need you. I'm secure inside, so your differences don't threaten me; they interest me. Show me your mitzvahs; sing me your songs. I'm not tolerating, I am engaging. If we disagree, we'll do so with dignity, but we'll never stop seeing each other. You're family, and I am more than my ideology. I'm also curious, so tell me more. You're enriching me."
And guess what? Something miraculous happens at that moment: that person who you're listening to and taking from, well, they're now more likely to listen to you and take from you. To take your views, your songs, your mitzvahs. That is the climax of ahavat Yisrael: when the desire to receive becomes our strongest link; when we stop competing with each other and start completing each other; when we open our eyes and realize that we each own a piece of the truth, and together we own the whole truth.
After 2,000 years of living apart, we are now face to face, Jews of all stripes and colors in virtually the same neighborhoods. If we can take little steps and walk from the same neighborhood to the same table, and share what we've learned and accumulated over those 2,000 years, we can transform this moment in history into the ultimate family reunion. Yes, it's a utopian vision, but so was the dream of returning to Israel, and God knows we rose to that challenge.
So my friends, I'm inviting you this Shabbat to begin our family reunion by taking from your fellow Jew. Instead of, "I'll give to you so you can see what you've been missing," let's try, "I'll take from you so I can see what I've been missing."
The path to true love is not through change, but through exchange. And if this means that you'll occasionally be taking from another shul or another rabbi, you should know that I'll be doing the same.
Happy Valentine's Day.