First Person

Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2003 / 12 Adar I 5763

Shut up, I love you!

By David Suissa | What is it about the mitzvah -- religious precept -- 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, Chassidic, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Unaffiliated, Atheist, Right wing and Left wing Jews were gathered at a private memorial dinner - and no one had to call security. We all sat at the same 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 memorials 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 Ahavas Yisrael?

So here, my friends, is a layman's sermon and contribution to this mysterious subject of Ahavas Yisrael:

"Good Shabbes, 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 AhavasYisrael - loving our fellow Jew. But now I will stick my neck out and tell you how I think we can live out this great mitzvah of love.

I know you have a short attention span, and I can hear a few stomachs growling from the aroma of the cholent, so let me cut to the chase and start with the secret to true Ahavas Yisrael: 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 never have to smell his bad breath, or 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 Ahavas 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 see things the same 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, discover rituals we're not used to discovering, sing songs we're not used to singing, hear views we're not used to hearing. That's not safe and easy love, it's hard love, and it's the true test of Ahavas Yisrael. Easy love separates us, 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 G-d's image, and you honor them by letting them give you something. Like Heschel said, the greatest need we have is to feel needed. Hard love is true love because it makes people 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 joy. You're telling that person: 'you're worth a lot to me - I need you. Show me your mitzvahs, sing me your songs, give me your words. I'm secure inside, so your differences don't threaten me, they interest me. I'm not judging or tolerating, I am engaging. If we disagree on something, we will do so with dignity, but we will never stop seeing each other. That's because you're family, and I am more than my ideology. I'm also curious and welcoming, so tell me more. You're helping me grow. 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 foods, your poems, your mitzvahs. That is the climax of Ahavas 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 2000 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 communal table, and share the goodies we have accumulated over those 2000 years, we can transform this unique moment in history into the ultimate family reunion.

So my friends, I'm inviting you this Sabbath to begin this 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'. You will see that the path to true love is not to change, but to exchange. And if this means that you'll occasionally be taking from another synagogue or another rabbi, you should know that I'll be doing the same."

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David Suissa is the founder and editor of OLAM Magazine and the activist site Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, David Suissa