Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

By Shayna Hulkower

We've already talked about how this is a special time of year, between Pesach and Shavuot, and that there is a special potential in the air that can make it easier to improve ourselves. To build our character traits, like the Jews who left Egypt 3,500 years ago, so that we are better people, and ready to receive the Torah on Shavuot. This period of time is also marked by tragedy. During the time of one of the greatest Sages in all of history, Rebbe Akiva, lost 24,000 of his students to a plague. The timing was not at all a coincidence, as we will see.
Each night, when we count the omer, the mitzvah is to just say what number of day of the omer we are on. However, there is also a more mystical component to it. As we learned, for the seven weeks there are seven sefirot, or categories of energy (told you it is mystical!) and each of the 49 days is a combination of two of the traits, so that each day has its own unique power. This unique power is available for us to work on our middot, or character traits, in this particular area if we are interested. 

Rebbe Akiva is known for many things, but at the top of the list was his fondness of the pasuk from the Torah, which says in Vayikra 19:18, "v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha" typically translated to "Love your neighbor as yourself". Out of all of the commandments in the Torah, what is so special about this one? Rebbe Akiva was not alone in seeing the importance of this phrase. The famous Rabbi Hillel also said that the main idea of the Torah is, 'To not do to your friend what you wouldn't want done to you.' (He added, 'the rest is commentary, now go and learn it,'). What is it about treating others as we want to be treated that is so important? Does being nice to people really need to be a mitzvah - isn't it common sense?

There is an idea from the Baal Shem Tov, the originator of the chassidut movement, that by loving our neighbor as ourself, we are required to judge those around us favorably, as we ourselves would like to be judged. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But there is already a separate mitzvah for this, called dan l'kuf zechut, or to judge someone with the intention they are doing the right thing. As it is, we know that Rebbe Akiva's students were all nice enough to each other on the surface. What was it in their behavior that was bad enough to warrant them all being wiped out?

A lack of respect.

That's right. The students didn't respect each other. There is an idea that rather than listening to what their chavruta or study partner had to say on an idea, each would wait quietly while thinking about what HE wanted to say. There was no appreciation that anyone else might have something valuable to offer. That there was something they could learn from each other. Each person thought he knew best, and really couldn't be bothered to think that there was something new that he could learn from those around him. If they could have seen that, they would have changed their behavior when the first students started to die. But this stubbornness lead to their own demise. Why were they killed? These students were the smartest of their generation and were being groomed to be the leaders of the Jewish people. How could klal Yisrael be lead by people who were so haughty? It says in Pirkei Avot that you should never be too extreme in your middot, but one thing you can never be too much of is humble. 

The fact that these deaths happened during Sefirat HaOmer can lead us to see that the opportunity to improve ourselves in our interactions with those around us should not be viewed as merely a nice idea. The foundation of Torah is built on the premise we have to be good to each other, no less than how we want to be treated (and who really, doesn't want to be treated nicely), and if we want to be worthy of receiving the Torah our behavior must be up to par. There are numerous websites and books that give exercises on what steps to take on each day, but the overriding idea is that we work on being nicer to everyone - those around us and ourselves. Ways that we can do this include taking the time to smile at someone who looks like they are having a hard day, letting a spouse or friend talk about their feelings rather than trying to jump in and offer a solution, allowing someone to do something nice for you even if you don't really want or need it (for example a friend of mine went on a blind date with someone just because she knew how much it would mean to the mutual friend that she respected her opinion enough to go out). The list goes on and on. Ultimately, if you don't want to do something, but know that doing it would make the other person happy - THIS is the time of year to choose doing what's right over what's more comfortable.

Shayna Hulkower is an Olah Chadasha, living in Jerusalem. She enjoys trying to speak Hebrew, finding the humor in every situation (especially dating), and is looking forward to the day she can successfully argue b'Ivrit. You can also view her blogs Curls of Wisdom,  Shomer Tel Aviv on all things kosher in Tel Aviv, and ToBuildAndToKeep on environmental issues in Israel.

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