Many Limbs, One Body
It is possible to love "as one loves oneself"
Wednesday, May 08, 2019
was recently searching for a particular quote that I thought I remembered in the name of Abraham Lincoln. I did not find what I was looking for. But along the way, I discovered this precious gem: "I really don't like that fellow. I must get to know him better."
From President Lincoln I take away two things. First, not everyone is immediately likeable. With many people, it takes genuine effort to discover their good points. One must keep looking and getting to know them better. Second, the effort is worthwhile. The more we find to admire about those we meet, the happier we will be.
The higher our estimation of our fellow human beings the more Hashem's world feels like a good place to us, and the greater our sense of His beneficence. The more we recognize the tzelem Elokim in others, the easier it is to become aware of it in ourselves. And nothing is more uplifting than knowing that we are in possession of a Divine soul.
Abraham Lincoln was not Jewish, and he was not speaking out of any sense of religious obligation. He was offering advice for a fulfilled and happier life, rather than a jaundiced, crabbed existence spent finding faults in others.
With respect to our fellow Jews, however, Lincoln's advice to strive to find the good in others arguably rises to the level of religious obligation. Rav Noah Weinberg used to define love as a commitment to focus on the good points of the beloved. While that definition does not by itself help us decide to whom that commitment should be made in the first place, it is certainly good advice once the commitment has been made.
But the commandment "V'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha — love your friend [i.e., your fellow Jew] as yourself" constitutes an obligatory commitment toward every fellow Jew. As many commentators have noted, it is impossible to love another to the same degree as oneself — certainly it is impossible to love every fellow Jew in that fashion. But it is possible to love "as one loves oneself."
When we look in the mirror, we are acutely aware that the person staring back at us has many faults — some obvious, some less so. Yet despite those many faults, we nevertheless experience an easy satisfaction, a feeling that on the whole we are worthy and the world is a better place for our presence.
But what comes naturally to us as we contemplate ourselves requires effort with respect to at least some of our fellow Jews. As Rav Reuven Leuchter put it in our pre-Pesach interview, we have to become "Brisker lamdanim" to discover how each of our fellow Jews is a necessary limb in the collective body of Klal Yisrael. In other words, we have to imagine for them some role in Klal Yisrael's fulfillment of its ultimate destiny of revealing Hashem to the entire world.
Getting to know them better certainly helps. People are multifaceted; they each have their particular strong points. The person with whom we would choose to be stranded on a desert island is not necessarily the person we would want next to us in a foxhole — indeed the two are rarely the same person.
Similarly, reaching our destination as Klal Yisrael is a multifaceted task, involving many twists and turns on the journey, and therefore demanding many sorts of abilities and strengths. Each Jew has something to contribute, and none possess all the talents necessary to realize the goal.
When we start with the assumption that each Jew is connected to every other Jew, as limbs on a collective body, then it is much easier to discover the strengths of a fellow Jew and to imagine him as a necessary limb.
The more positive attributes we discover the greater our sense of connection. And that in turn pushes us to look further for more positive points. Those who start with the strongest sense of the interconnectedness of all Jews, of our essential unity, will see not only the strengths already attained by fellow Jews, but be acutely aware of their potential for further growth and an expanded role in the collective destiny of Klal Yisrael.
That is the exact opposite of the ayin hara. It freezes that which it gazes upon where it is, and cuts off the potential for further growth and change. But it is forbidden to freeze a fellow Jew in this fashion. The proscriptions against all forms of foretelling are not predicated on the assumption that such foretelling is impossible. Rather what is proscribed is projecting a Jew into the future based on what he or she is today on the assumption that he or she will not change.
Those who have had the greatest impact on the future of Klal Yisrael in recent decades are precisely those who looked most deeply at their fellow Jews and plumbed beneath all the surface accoutrements — the long hair and shabby clothes — and saw the limitless souls obscured by the unpromising surface.
As the wife of the late Rav Meir Schuster once told me, summing up her late husband's ability to bring thousands of young Jews into yeshivos or seminaries for the first time: "He saw through them, and they saw through him." He saw the pintele Yid, the Jewish soul, behind the hirsute exterior. And they saw behind the gangly, tongue-tied figure with the sun-bleached straw hat, someone who cared about them more than anyone had ever cared before.
The more that we all make the effort to imagine roles for individual Jews and even Jewish groups with whom we find ourselves in tension in the unfolding destiny of the Jewish People, the sooner we will bring that destiny to fruition.
When Quality Trumps Quantity
I'm on the road this week, and not in a position to write a full appreciation of Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, ztz"l, the long-time head of the Vaad L'Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, who passed away last week. The story of the Vaad's achievements in the former Soviet Union has already been told at book length in The Underground, though Rabbi Neustadt's own role is characteristically downplayed, despite his having been the main source of information for author Yaakov Astor.
My relationship to Rabbi Neustadt developed over many years. His son-in-law and daughter are among our closest friends, and I used to enjoy schmoozing with him on his visits to Eretz Yisrael. He was a major source of information for my biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer and about the early Zeirei Agudath Israel movement in Israel, led by Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz.
But for now, I want to focus only on one point: the importance of his vision in the development of Russian-speaking Jewry in Israel. When the Iron Curtain fell and large numbers of Jews poured out of captivity in the early '90s, huge sums of philanthropic money were suddenly available for the cause of aiding the Russians. At that time, for instance, the foundations of the SHUVU school system were laid.
Now, truth be told, much of that money went to waste producing numbers: How many elderly Russians, for instance, were lured to Chanukah parties by free sufganiyot, without any long-range impact whatsoever.
Rabbi Neustadt's insight was that the top priority was to create a cadre of serious, Russian-speaking talmidei chachamim. There was already an identifiable group of young, highly talented and super-dedicated individuals who had begun their studies in the former Soviet Union. Through the Vaad L' Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, Rabbi Neustadt made sure that they had the resources and support to continue their studies for many years, en route to becoming the primary teachers of the next generation of Russian-speaking talmidim.
Out of that focus on the development of a core group of talmidei chachamim came many others in their wake, in fulfillment of a dictum I once heard in the name of the Brisker Rav, ztz"l: From quality you can sometimes also get quantity. But from quantity, you will never produce quality.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Personalities
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