November 21, 2018

Shut Up, I Love You!

What is it about the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jew thatis so complicated?

This question was on my mind recently when I witnessed anextraordinary event. A group of Sephardic, Chasidic, Reform, Orthodox,Conservative, Reconstructionist, unaffiliated, atheist, right- and left-wingJews were gathered at a private dinner  — and no one had to call security. Weall sat at a large table, and shared our thoughts with each other. What struckme was how intently everyone listened. There was a holy glow to the evening, asense that something special was unfolding.

So I thought: Wow, that was a piece of cake. What happenedthat created this little miracle of Jewish unity? How could we bottle it so wedon’t have to wait for private dinners to bring out, in the words of AbrahamLincoln, 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 specialmindset that promotes true ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people)?

So here, my friends, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, is alayman’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 differentway. For years now, you have heard about the importance of ahavat Yisrael. Butnow I will stick my neck out and tell you how I think we can live out thisgreat mitzvah of love: We should stop giving to each other and start takingfrom each other.

Let me explain. It’s easy to love in the abstract, when yourlove is never tested. It’s easy to say “I love every Jew” when you are doingall the talking (shut up, I love you!). It’s easy because you’re the one incontrol.

But easy is not the Jewish way, and ahavat Yisrael iscertainly not easy. You see, life gives us a choice. We can spend the rest ofour days with people we always agree with, people who laugh and live and thinkthe way we do. In this cubicle of isolation, we feel safe and comfortable. That’seasy 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’renot used to meeting, sing songs we’re not used to singing, hear views we’re notused to hearing. In other words, we can take from our fellow Jew, even if itmakes us uncomfortable. That’s hard love, and it’s the true test of ahavatYisrael. Easy love keeps us apart, but hard love bonds us.

Feeling sorry for another Jew because he or she does nothave your truth is easy love (even if your truth is that there is only onetruth). Trying to save that person is easy love. Loving a million people fromafar is easy love. Hard love is when you recognize that your fellow Jews arealso created in God’s image, and you honor them by letting them give yousomething. 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) youallow the person to give a part of himself, and that is the greatest gift. Byshowing genuine interest, you create a vessel for his giving to enter yourheart. You’re telling that person: “You’re worth a lot to me — I need you. I’msecure inside, so your differences don’t threaten me; they interest me. Show meyour mitzvahs; sing me your songs. I’m not tolerating, I am engaging. If wedisagree, 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 memore. 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 morelikely to listen to you and take from you. To take your views, your songs, yourmitzvahs. That is the climax of ahavat Yisrael: when the desire to receivebecomes our strongest link; when we stop competing with each other and startcompleting each other; when we open our eyes and realize that we each own apiece 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 cantake little steps and walk from the same neighborhood to the same table, andshare what we’ve learned and accumulated over those 2,000 years, we can transformthis moment in history into the ultimate family reunion. Yes, it’s a utopianvision, but so was the dream of returning to Israel, and God knows we rose tothat challenge.

So my friends, I’m inviting you this Shabbat to begin ourfamily reunion by taking from your fellow Jew. Instead of, “I’ll give to youso you can see what you’ve been missing,” let’s try, “I’ll take from you so Ican see what I’ve been missing.”

The path to true love is not through change, but throughexchange. And if this means that you’ll occasionally be taking from anothershul or another rabbi, you should know that I’ll be doing the same.

Happy Valentine’s Day.