Unlimited Ahavas Yisrael

One’s ahavas Yisrael must be unlimited. One must always be actively engaged and search for all means to help another,1 and this must be approached with a businesslike attitude. Just as a good businessman continually thinks of ways to expand his business and is always searching for new customers, so, too, every Jew must look to expand his “business” of ahavas Yisrael.2

With regard to the mitzvah of ahavas HaShem, the Torah is not satisfied with the level of “with all your heart” but commands that it be “with all your soul and with all your might.” So too, ahavas Yisrael, which is a vessel for ahavas HaShem, must be unlimited.3

One constantly needs to arouse one’s ahavas Yisrael.4 This involves a conscious effort with all one’s heart and soul to drive the love into one’s heart5 and to look with a favorable eye6 at every person no matter what his external qualities or failings. This is the true meaning of the mitzvah, “Love your fellow as yourself.”7

The Alter Rebbe writes an amazing thing in Tanya: If a negative thought about somebody enters one’s mind, it should be treated as an idolatrous thought and immediately removed from the mind.8 Furthermore, it could be that a defect that one sees in another may actually stem from that same defect in oneself.9 Even if one has actually been wronged, it is correct to learn from Yosef how he repaid evil with kindness.10

In general, a person should always seek to take every opportunity to explain to one’s own family — such as at the Shabbos and Yom Tov table — the importance of ahavas Yisrael, and in general to widen his circle of friends.11 In addition to the Chassidic explanation of this mitzvah, one should also relate stories of tzaddikim who excelled in this character trait.12

One should always have a welcoming expression on one’s face,13 and in discussion one should always speak in a pleasant and peaceful manner; in a way in which one’s ahavas Yisrael will be felt by the person being spoken to.14

Doing a Favor

The Alter Rebbe received the following teaching from the tzaddik Reb Mordechai, who had heard it from the Baal Shem Tov: A soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years, just to do a Jew a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one.15

This is truly a remarkable statement, for it suggests that although for seventy or eighty years a Jew may have learned much Torah and performed many mitzvos — all of which cause great delight to G‑d — it could be that that is not the ultimate purpose of his soul’s descent. Moreover, the Baal Shem Tov delivered this teaching to one of his greatest students, Reb Mordechai, whose learning and performance of mitzvos was exemplary. Only through doing another Jew a favor, the Baal Shem Tov told Reb Mordechai, would the purpose of the soul’s descent be achieved.16 If these words were spoken to such a person as Reb Mordechai, then they certainly apply to us.

Since we cannot know which favor is the purpose of our soul’s descent,17 it follows that we must make the greatest effort to do another favor and yet another favor in the physical and particularly in the spiritual realms for another Jew.18 Furthermore, one should regard each favor as the purpose for which one’s soul came down to this world.

The efforts to do a favor for another should be undertaken in the manner similar to that of a slave.19 If one were to hear some bad news about another, whether of a material problem and how much more so a spiritual one, he shouldn’t make all kinds of calculations, but should make all efforts to help, regardless of whether or not he is actually obligated.20 Even if the efforts may not be successful, one should still try,21 because the pain one feels22 for another should touch one deeply and essentially,23 and on this level there is no room for calculations.24 One should also avoid making a calculation as to whether the other person actually needs what he has requested — whether it is essential or non-essential.25 If it has been requested, one should fulfill the request without making calculations.26 Neither should one calculate what one will receive for doing the favor — not even the spiritual rewards.27 Even if one has an object which is difficult to find elsewhere, one should be prepared to give it away joyfully to another.28

The accepted rule29 that the “brain rules the heart” should not apply when deciding how to help another.30 It is absolutely necessary to train children in such a spirit — to raise a generation that is prepared to give away what they have for the good of another, and to do it joyfully.31

Human activity can be divided into two categories: matters of the body and matters of the soul. Ahavas Yisrael extends equally to both these areas. In matters of the body, we learn from the Tanya: “His body should be despised,” i.e., material possessions should not be of great importance, and therefore one should not feel that a person will encroach on his borders.

In matters of the spirit, one should never think that because of one’s own distinction and loftiness of soul, one should not associate with another who is not on the same level. The reasons for this are that 1) “As for the soul and spirit, who knows their greatness and level in their root and source in the living G‑d?”32 (It may be in fact that in his source, his friend is in fact greater than he) and 2) “Since they are all equal and they have one father,” they are, in fact, one.33

It therefore follows that one should also be willing to do a favor for a child — whether a child in age or in education. We learn this from the fact that G‑d removed the taste from certain foods in the wilderness so that it should not affect even the infants who were nursing. We can also learn from this how important it is to have mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, for the chinuch of even small children.34

Doing a favor for another, in addition to fulfilling the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael, also helps to draw the person closer to HaShem spiritually.35 One of the ways to be successful in outreach is to do a favor for another even if it may be only in material matters.36 One should not make this favor dependent on spiritual advancement or conditional on mitzvah observance; rather, one should display true ahavas Yisrael and do another a favor simply because he is a fellow Jew.37 Once a person has seen that somebody has done him a favor out of true ahavas Yisrael, then when the person who received the favor is asked to do a mitzvah, in the words of the Sages,38 “A man will not display chutzpah before his debtor.”

One must not hesitate to do a favor just for an individual — be it either material or spiritual. Every Jew is “a whole world” and should be viewed as such. It is a well-known saying of the Previous Rebbe that every Jew is considered like a community, because he has the power to make a community and to give life to a community.39

Conversely, if one is the recipient of a favor, one should never think that the person doing the favor has ulterior motives, or perhaps he is doing the favor because he is naturally disposed to helping others, rather one should view the favor as a true act of ahavas Yisrael.40

Self Sacrifice for Ahavas Yisrael

Not only is one obligated to try to help another, one must have mesirus nefesh to help another,41 even for a Jew whom one has never met.42 In this respect, ahavas Yisrael is compared to ahavas HaShem43 in that not only must it be “with all your heart and with all your soul,” but it must also be “with all your might,” i.e., with mesirus nefesh.

An example of having mesirus nefesh for ahavas Yisrael may be taken from Moshe Rabbeinu. The parshah of Tetzaveh is the only parshah in the Torah after Moshe’s birth that does not contain his name. The Baal HaTurim gives the explanation that when Moshe was defending the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf, he told G‑d that if He does not forgive them then, “erase my name from the book that You have written.”44 We are told that the curse of a sage is fulfilled even if it is conditional,45 and therefore the name of Moshe does not appear in the parshah of Tetzaveh. We see from this how Moshe was willing to give up his connection with Torah — which was his whole existence — for the sake of his people, people who in fact had sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf. Through his mesirus nefesh for ahavas Yisrael, Moshe opened the channels for Jews to conduct themselves likewise in all times and places.46

A further example of Moshe Rabbeinu’s unlimited ahavas Yisrael is witnessed in the episode of the breaking of the Tablets.47 The Tablets of stone were the “work of G‑d and the writing of G‑d,”48 which Moshe merited to receive directly from Him. The Tablets were incredibly precious to Moshe, as was his great love for Torah in general.49 However, when Moshe, the true lover and shepherd of Israel, saw that the Tablets could cause damage to klal Yisrael (their being the kesubah, marriage contract, between G‑d and His people) then without hesitation he smashed them.

For this great act of love for the Jewish people, G‑d praised Moshe for his decision to break the Tablets. The fundamental importance of this teaching is indicated by the fact that it is the content of the last verse of the Torah which states: “before the eyes of Israel.” Rashi comments that this refers to the breaking of the Tablets and G‑d’s gratitude to Moshe. A true Jewish leader will stop at nothing to defend his people.50

Rabbi Akiva and the Rashbi

Although Rabbi Akiva taught that the mitzvah to “Love your fellow as yourself” is a great principle of the Torah, it is well known that 24,000 of his students died because they did not honor each other. The Rebbe explains that being true students of Rabbi Akiva, each one of them understood his mentor’s teachings slightly differently and each could not accept the others’ interpretation. It was this inability to accept the others’ opinions that led to a lack of honor. Because Rabbi Akiva’s students should certainly have demonstrated ahavas Yisrael, it was they who were punished so severely for their lack of it.

From this story one learns how important it is to maintain ahavas Yisrael even when a situation arises in which one may feel that it is not necessary to show another respect.

The fact that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on Lag BaOmer has a connection with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) who passed away years later on Lag BaOmer. A later student of Rabbi Akiva, the Rashbi was ordained by Rabbi Akiva after the passing of the 24,000 students.

We find that the first thing the Rashbi did upon leaving the cave in which he found refuge from the Roman authorities was to search for something he could do to benefit another. Rather than immediately gathering students and teaching them Torah, his first act was one of ahavas Yisrael. His great mesirus nefesh for ahavas Yisrael rectified the dishonor exhibited by Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, and as a result, the Rashbi blazed the path for every Jew to follow.51