Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary People

February 27, 2020

7 min read


Battle coronavirus by loving your neighbor like yourself.

While we might be starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, it remains unclear when we will reach it. For now, we remain homebound, maximizing distancing and finding ourselves in roles and having responsibilities many of us are not used to. These are no ordinary times and yet, there are countless stories emerging of extraordinary people who, rather than focus on themselves and this challenging crisis, are performing spectacular acts of kindness for others.

Those on the front lines are risking their own well-being to treat those who are ill. Those who were previously sick, rather than hibernate in recovery are donating plasma to pay it forward. Some at great personal expense and pain have pledged to continue to pay workers. A group of Chasidic men delivered 1,000 tablets to coronavirus patients in New York City hospitals to let them connect to their families who are not allowed to visit. In our community, on Seder night a young family set up a table and hosted their Seder outside the window of an elderly Holocaust survivor so he wouldn’t be alone. All around us, there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things at this time.

In her recent article, The Science of Helping Out, Tara Parker-Pope writes: “At a time when we are all experiencing an extraordinary level of stress, science offers a simple and effective way to bolster our own emotional health. To help yourself, start by helping others. Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a significant impact on our well-being.”

What science is teaching now, the Torah has endorsed for us all along.

“Do not hate your brother in your heart….you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge, you must love you fellow as yourself, I am Hashem” (Lev. 19:17, 18).

This sentence contains one of the most famous commands in the entire Torah, and the Ramban is bothered by the same question as everyone else – is it really possible to love someone as much as you love yourself? We have been designed and programmed to naturally be inclined to take care of ourselves, look out for ourselves, and prioritize our well-being. We know ourselves better than anyone in the world, and we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, judge ourselves favorably, see the best in ourselves, and are quick to justify and explain any shortcomings in ourselves. Can we really meet that standard for others including mere acquaintances and even strangers?

The Ramban explains that in truth it is impossible to love someone as much as we love ourselves and, accordingly, this is not actually the threshold of the mitzvah. So how is this mitzvah fulfilled?

The Ramban says it is human nature to wish well for others but in reality want them to have less than us. We want someone to make a good living and be happy… as long as they earn less than we do. We want them to have a nice house… as long as it isn’t as big as ours; or drive a nice car… as long as it isn’t as fancy as the one we drive. The Torah commands us “to love your neighbor like yourself” – while you cannot truly love others as you love yourself, you can want others to have “like yourself”, as much or more than you. You can be happy for them.

Another explanation of the mitzvah is to love your neighbor – because he or she is similar to you, “like yourself.” You both possess the same spark of life, the same Godly soul, you both have strengths and weaknesses, you both have virtues and faults, you both have things to be proud of and areas to work on.

Love others, because if you can cut away their different type of kippah or their lack of a kippah altogether, if you ignore that they dress differently, act differently, think differently, if you cut away their idiosyncrasies and habits that drive you crazy you will find they are just like you.

Rabbi Akiva witnessed the failure of thousands of his students to learn this lesson. They focused on their differences rather than choosing to embrace their similarities and the result was that they couldn’t see themselves in one another, they could not relate or identify. They saw their fellow student as different, the other, and this caused them to disrespect one another. Rabbi Akiva attended thousands of funerals and delivered thousands of eulogies as his students were cut down by a punitive plague and he turned around and taught, “Love your neighbor is the primary principle of the Torah.”

It is not a coincidence that the same Rabbi Akiva is quoted in Pirkei Avos as teaching us “precious is every person because we were all created in the image of God.” Knowing and internalizing that concept is the secret of loving everyone.

Genuine love means peeling back the layers of that which separates us from others until we find common ground and that which connects us.

But how do we express that love? Is loving a fellow Jew just about tolerating them?

R’ Moshe Leib Sassover used to tell his chassidim that he learned what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka. One of them yelled to his friend, “Do you love me?” The friend, somewhat surprised, answered, “Of course, of course I love you!” “No, no”, insisted the first one, “Do you really love me, really?!” The friend assured him, “Of course I love you. You’re my best friend!” “Tell me, do you know what I need? Do you know why I am in pain?” The friend said, “how could I possibly know what you need or why you are in pain?” The first peasant answered, “How then can you say you love me when you don’t know what I need or why I am in pain.”

R’ Moshe Leib told his chassidim that truly loving someone means to know their needs and to feel their pain.

Real love is not lip service; it is not just tolerating one another. Love is noticing someone is having a bad day, it is feeling their pain, it is showing someone you care, even when that person is someone you barely know or don’t know at all.

There are people around us hurting, lacking, or in pain. While this is unfortunately true year-round, it is especially true in this moment in time. If we claim to love these people them, we cannot fail to notice. While for many of us Shabbos these days is the happiest, most restful day of the week, for others, it is filled with stress, anxiety and pain. Imagine living alone and each week as Shabbos approaches finding yourself dreading the 25 hours away from the phone, the computer, any meaningful social interaction. With the days getting later, imagine the prospect of a long Shabbos day by yourself. How much of a nap and how much reading can you do before you feel lonely?

This is one example of many people and populations we claim to love, but we aren’t doing a great job of showing it. If you love them you reach out during the week, maybe set up a time to check in with them on Shabbos consistent with social distancing policies and the guidelines we have previously sent out. If we love the people whose businesses or livelihoods are taking a significant hit from this crisis, let’s creatively and sensitively find ways to help them, support them, or just let them know we are thinking about them.

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