The Torah is filled with many beautiful and meaningful mitzvos (commandments). These mitzvos teach us how to create and sustain a relationship with God and with one another. Imagine for a moment if you were asked, “Which is the most important of all of God’s commandments? Which mitzvah do you think outweighs the rest?” Perhaps, it is Shabbos or Bris Milah (circumcision) both of which are referred to as an os (sign) between God and His nation. Perhaps, it is not any one mitzvah but a unit of mitzvos like the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments) that are the spiritual centerpiece of our Torah. In fact, the great sage, Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that all 613 mitzvos are derivatives of the Ten Commandments. Long before you and I pondered this question, the great rabbinic sages of yesteryear were conducting this very discussion.
You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18); Rabbi Akiva said, “This is an important principle of the Torah.” Ben Azai said, “This is the narrative of the generations of man on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him” (Genesis 5:1), is even more important (Sifra, Kedoshim).
Rabbi Akiva and his disciple, Ben Azai, were trying to figure out what is the most important, core principle we have in our Torah. Rabbi Akiva explains that everything comes from loving the other. This is reminiscent of the story of the gentile who approached the great sage Hillel and said, “I want to convert on the condition that you (Hillel) teach me the entire Torah standing on one foot.” To which Hillel responded, “That which is despicable to you, do not visit upon the other.” Rabbi Akiva continues this tradition and explains that the mitzvah of V’Ahavta l’reyacha kamocha (Love your fellow as you love yourself) is the most important tenet of our belief. If you can’t love another how can you love God? If you can’t love someone who you can see, touch and experience, how can you love that which is amorphous and beyond the scope of human comprehension? .
Yet, Ben Azai, Rabbi Akiba’s trusted disciple, disagreed with his rebbe (teacher). At first glance,Ben Azai’s statement is difficult to understand as there is no actual mitzvah contained in the verse he quotes. This verse, from the fifth chapter of Bereishis (Genesis), begins a listing of the life-spans of the generations beginning with Adam. What is the nature of Ben Azai’s disagreement with Rabbi Akiva? Rav Asher Weiss advances a beautiful insight. Ben Azai says, “My great teacher, Rabbi Akiva if only we could be as pure as you. It would be wonderful to think that we could love each other as we love ourselves. But this aspiration is fraught with so many problems. There are people who have wronged me, and it is difficult for me to forgive, let alone love them. There are people who do bad things and who is to say they deserve my love. There are simply not “loveable” because of their temperament and disposition. And therefore, I would like to suggest something else. There is something more basic and important than love – respect. We can’t love every other Jew, but we can learn to respect them. “This is the narrative of the generations of man on the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him (Genesis 5:1).” Every Jew (it is true for all humanity, but let’s first focus on loving each other), is made in the image of God and for that alone (s)he deserves my respect. To require us to love one another is a tall order, but to respect each other; this is attainable.”
Such a powerful lesson. Perhaps, it isn’t possible to love everyone – but I must work on my ability to respect the other. There is a societal trend to vilify anyone who does not share “my” views. This is true on an individual and national level. Even the most open minded of people often lack tolerance for opinions and views that may differ from their own. We are each entitled to our personal religious, social and political views but we must learn to respect even those who don’t share them. We can disagree and argue our positions vociferously and passionately, bur always with respect and dignity for the other.
This Motzai Shabbos and Sunday, we will observe the fast of the 9th of Av. It is on this day, thousands of years ago, that our beloved Beis HaMikdash (Temple) was set ablaze. So much of the hardship, so many of the heartbreaking difficulties were the result of infighting, factionalism and indifference to the other. We can do better, we can be better. We don’t have to agree – we just must respect.
What is the most important mitzvah of the Torah? I’m not sure – much greater men have pondered this question and the answer still seems far from reach. But here is what I do know. The path forward must be lined with love for our fellow Jew. And before we can love we must learn to respect. We need not compromise our beliefs and values we hold dear to make someone else feel happy, accepted or validated. But we must respect the other no matter how deep the divide or disagreement. Why? “…for in the likeness of God, He created him;” we are each a beautiful Tzelem Elokim (image of God). May we be privileged to see this Divine identity within ourselves and may we be courageous enough to see it within one another.
The Mishna (Taanis) states, “Mi’shenichnas Av Mi’maatin B’simcha, when the month of Av begins, we decrease our displays of joy.” This is a heavy month. A month filled with historical and contemporary tragedy. A month in which we commemorate the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and at the same time, actively mourn the members of the Salomon family from Halamish who were brutally murdered at their Shabbos table. But the Mishna reminds us that the root of the mourning and devastation of this month is the Sin of the Spies. We couldn’t take God at His word, we couldn’t take Moshe at his word, we had to find out for ourselves. So we approached Moshe and told him we wanted to send spies. The results were tragic. The spies returned and told the people that the Land and its inhabitants were simply “unconquerable.” These demoralizing words sent the people into a downward spiral. They cried. And it is here that the Talmud records a dramatic statement: “God said, ‘You have cried unnecessary tears, I will cause you to cry for many generations to come (Taanis 31).’” When did this report and Divine response occur? On the 9th of Av. It is the sin of the spies that created the tragic foundation for this difficult day. A foundation, which has seen layer after layer of tragedy added to it over the last two thousand years.
But did the punishment fit the crime? I understand that we were ungrateful and lacked faithfulness. But to condemn every Jew (over the age of 20) to death in the desert; to mark this day for ongoing tragedy – seems a bit disproportionate? Furthermore, the people tried to do teshuva (repent). The very next morning the Torah relates that the people arose early in the morning and ascended to the mountain top, saying, “We are ready to go up to the place of which the Lord spoke, for we have sinned.” Moses said, “Why do you transgress the word of the Lord? It will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, [so that] you will not be beaten by your enemies (Bamidbar 14:39-41).” They acknowledged their mistake and they tried to right the wrong, yet the punishment was still severe and swift. How are we to understand the nature of their mistake and the Divine reaction?
The Dubno Maggid (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1740-1804) explains this dynamic with a mashal (parable). There was a fine young man who was known to be a Torah scholar with sterling middos (character traits) who was engaged to marry a young woman from a very wealthy family. One day the fathers were sitting down to discuss the financial arrangements for the upcoming wedding. The father of the bride told the father of the groom, “I am so happy our children are getting married, we will be happy to pay for the wedding. My only request is that you take care of outfitting your son for the wedding. But it is important that you buy him a suit of the finest materials.” To which the father of the groom responded, “My dear friend, I, too, share your excitement for the upcoming wedding of our children and I have much appreciation for your generosity. I am a man of virtually no means and while I can certainly afford a basic wardrobe for my son, I can’t purchase the type of clothing you are suggesting.” “Well if you can’t provide this one small part, then the wedding is off!” replied the father of the bride. And so the beautiful match ended. A few months went by and the father of the bride regretted his hasty decision. The groom was such a fine young man with such sterling character, how could he justify breaking off the nuptials over a suit. He contacted the father of the groom and voiced his desire to have their children marry. “My dear friend, replied the father of the groom, my son is a very special young man who has much potential. Yet, you were willing to cast him aside because of a suit. Any family that would treat my son this way doesn’t truly appreciate who my son is. I no longer wish for my son to be a part of your family.”
The Dubno Maggid explains, when the spies maligned the Land of Israel, it highlighted a fundamental lack of love and appreciation for the Land. This wasn’t simply a lack of proper judgment; this sin represented a fundamental lack of understanding of the preciousness and holiness of the Land. A mistake of this magnitude could not simply be remedied by attempting to march on the Land the next day, nor could it be remedied by simply apologizing. It would take another forty years of nomadic existence to cultivate an appreciation for a home, for a land, for a destiny. The real sin of the spies was that all they saw were the problems; they didn’t see the beauty and good.
There is nothing in life that is perfect, everything and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses but if all I see is what is broken and wrong – I end up appreciating nothing. Many of us have struggles with which we must contend each and every day but we must be careful that these struggles don’t obscure or eclipse our blessings. It is easy to lose one’s self in the sadness and despair of difficult circumstances. We must always maintain a healthy disposition and recognize all of the beautiful berachos and bounty we possess as well.
This lesson has an important interpersonal ramification as well. There is an amazing Gemara.
Rabbi Chiya’s wife was a difficult person. Yet, whenever he would come across a nice item he would purchase it, wrap it and give it to his wife (as a gift). Rav (Rabbi Chiya’s student) observed this and said, ‘Rebbe, why are you doing this? We see how she often mistreats you. To which Rabbi Chiya responded, ‘It is enough (I have gratitude) that she raises the children (she is a wonderful mother) and saves me from sin’ (Yevamos 63a).”
Apparently Rabbi Chiya didn’t have a story book marriage. There were complications. Yet, Rabbi Chiya chose to see the beautiful parts of his wife’s personality. Rabbi Chiya realized that in life nothing and no one is perfect – and you have to choose through which lens you will view others and the world. People wrong us, people hurt us, but we must learn how to see the positive aspects in the other. This is not just in marriage. The Rabbi Chiya standard must guide and inform all of our interpersonal relationships.
This coming week, we will observe what is undoubtedly the saddest day in our year, the 9th of Av. It is a day when we remember 2,000 years of tragedy, loss and sadness. It is a day when we will remember the sin of the spies, the more than 1,000,000 who died when Yerushalayim fell to the Romans, the 6,000,000 Kedoshim, those who have been murdered in acts of terror and tragedy. There are many things that are broken in the world and so many things that are broken within each of us. Tisha B’Av is a day of tears for all that has been lost. Tisha B’Av is a day when we cry for the dreams which never materialized. Tisha B’Av is a day when we cry for those we have lost and whose absence is acutely felt by our nation. Yet, we must remember that even on Tisha B’Av itself, the mourning practices lessen as the day progresses. Because after we cry and after we mourn we must remind ourselves that all is not lost. We each have beautiful blessings, each of us are beautiful blessings. As we dry our tears we pledge to ourselves that we will not lose ourselves in the abyss of sadness or despair. I will focus on that which is good. I will focus on my blessings. I will strain myself to see something beautiful and positive in every person. I will push myself to actively take stock of my personal blessings. I won’t be a spy. I won’t live life with a skewed perception. Perhaps, this is the merit we need. If we see the good in the other, ourselves and the world, maybe this will be the last Tisha B’Av marked with mourning.
May we merit to see the coming of Moshiach, the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash and the drying of our tears.
Rabbi Silber shares a beautiful message from Reb Levi Yitzchok. As Moshe stood with Klal Yisroel on the precipice of Eretz Yisroel he reviews with them the entire Torah. Reb Levi Yitzchok has a unique approach that sets the stage as we prepare to enter into Tisha B’av. While our spiritual framework has certainly been compromised with the destruction of the Temple, Moshe teaches us an important lesson of hope and confidence even as we experience golus and continue to yearn for the Beis Hamikdash.