Loving people you don’t even like

How to win friends and be nice to people

By: Paula Levin

Starting the New Year on a blank slate is such a lovely thought – all our past misdeeds erased by the atonement of Yom Kippur. But did you know there’s a teeny, tiny disclaimer in the fineprint? Hashem is willing to let bygones be bygones – at least, where He is concerned – but He doesn’t speak for our fellow man. Those we have wronged, those who have wronged us – we have to do the hard work of repairing relationships ourselves, asking for and giving forgiveness – even if it wasn’t requested! So, before we get all excited about this blank slate (what even is a slate?) let’s wrap our heads around the commandment to love your fellow as yourself – “ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha”[1] – and hopefully start the New Year with a whole new approach to Ahavas Yisrael.

The great sage Rabbi Akiva said this commandment is the great principle of the Torah, and Hillel went one step further. When asked by a potential convert to explain the Torah while he stood on one leg – Hillel said: “Do not do unto your friend that which is hateful to you. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” Like any loving parent, what makes Hashem happiest is to see His kinderlach getting along with each other. But this is a tall order because – well, people!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t say I’m filled with love for every member of my own extended family – much less every Jew – much less every human. Rabbi Shishler recently quipped that we are meant to love people we don’t even know – but of course those are the easiest ones to love! What is the Torah expecting of us anyway?

First, I decided to ask a rabbi how exactly we are meant to love people we don’t even like. Rabbi Levi Avtzon kicked the discussion off by explaining that we first need to define the word ahava – what we commonly translate as love. “There are different types of relationships, each needing a different degree of love.” We cannot simplify love as a warm fuzzy feeling in our heart. “The word ahava comes from the root word ‘hav’ which means to give. Hashem expects us to be givers. But should we give the same amount of ourselves to every person? Definitely not – that would be completely inappropriate. A lot can go wrong in relationships when we give too much, or too soon, to the wrong person. The right balance of chesed (kindness) and gevura (discipline/boundaries) is essential. The Rambam explains the hierarchy that we follow when giving tzedakah: first to our family, then to the poor of our community, then to the poor of our city, and so on. This shows us that there are degrees of giving. We don’t give the same amount to everyone.” This is particularly true when it comes to physical affection and emotional intimacy – which is certainly not recommended for every relationship – especially between the genders.

Rabbi Avtzon’s answer got me thinking about how often we fail to upgrade our Jewish knowledge as we grow older. When it comes to such fundamental principles of Torah, why do we remain content with definitions we learned in primary school instead of delving deeper into the infinite wellspring that is Torah, by listening in on a conversation by our people’s greatest minds which has spanned thousands of years? What other simplistic ideas formed in nursery school might we be walking around with that deserve to be relooked at, redefined, and delved into far deeper? Isn’t this worth contemplating and finding one thing to learn in more depth?

That said, I recall a cute little poem by Robert Fulgham I saw years ago called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and it’s amazing how some things never get old. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody…” You’ll note, however, that the poem covers our behaviour, not our inner feelings. Along with the Torah’s multitude of laws ‘between man and man’ (41 of which are directly related to “ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha”[2]) we are commanded to feel certain things: to love Hashem, to love people, not to hate our fellow in our heart, and many other requirements. So external actions are critical, but there is so much more to the story – there’s the inner life. “These are the duties of the heart,” explains Rabbi Avtzon – referencing a thousand year old text by Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda who describes these emotions and sentiments as the very heart of everything our limbs perform. “I don’t believe the Torah is asking us not to have the initial feeling – these are impulses from deep within and we have little to no control over them. It’s what we do after the initial thought and feeling that counts. Do we indulge and nurture the negative thought or feeling, or do we take it in a new, more wholesome direction? That is where our free choice lies. As Viktor Frankl put it, between stimulus and response there is a space – and therein lies our freedom. So someone hurt us, intentionally or unintentionally, do we allow this to become a full-blown farible?” Rabbi Avtzon believes that farible is an innocuous Yiddish word that we, as South African Jews, have turned into a movement! “We’ve made it a noun, a verb, an adjective. We’ve given it too much power.”

So, when the Torah tells us not to hate our fellow in our heart, it is saying: talk about your issues – in a constructive, respectful, private way – to genuinely make peace. Don’t let it fester, don’t let it define the person with whom you are ‘faribled’. “A human being is so much more than his or her behaviour – especially his reaction in one context or incident. We would not want Hashem to judge us by that criteria, so can we push past our initial impulse to a kinder, more generous response? Can we separate someone’s behaviour from their essence?” asks Rabbi Avtzon.

At our core, we are each a uniquely beautiful and infinite piece of G-d on High. The challenge is to see through the external and try to give to each other because, essentially, we are one people, one body, and one with G-d. “This does not mean tolerating abuse, or being naive,” Rabbi Avtzon qualifies. “To paraphrase the Talmud[3]: “respect and suspect.” This means keep your eyes open and don’t be a doormat – but still find a way to give, to extend yourself, for the sake of the G-dly soul that lies beneath that exterior. “Perhaps a fellow Jew is in prison for crimes he has committed, we can still give him a siddur and kosher food. We are not expected to turn a blind eye and endanger ourselves, only to see more than what meets the eye and respond by giving in whatever way is appropriate. That is Ahavas Yisrael.”

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, known by the title of his main work the Sfas Emes, brings another nuance to the discussion[4]. He explains that since it is obviously impossible to command someone to feel something they don’t – therefore it must be that naturally we do feel the emotions Hashem has commanded. Our duty, then, is to uncover this essential truth, and live in alignment with our deepest truth: that we are one. The Days of Awe help activate this core of who we are. As we stand together before G-d on the Day of Judgement, externals fall away – we are one great congregation bowing before the King of Kings, asking Him to see our souls, our goodness, our potential. As we become conscious that we are truly undeserving of Hashem’s blessings, appealing to his attribute of mercy, we need to remember to afford that same grace to our fellow Jews, and see them in the way we would like to be seen.

As Jews, we must constantly be developing our x-ray vision, looking beneath life’s glittering or tarnished surfaces to what is real and true. The Sages of the Mishnah teach that a person must work on having a good eye and a good heart.[5] To get more answers, I sat down with my friend and teacher, Brigitte Youngworth, to explore how to do just that. “Our life’s journey is about growing our self-awareness,” she explained. “So much of what poisons relationships comes from within us, from conclusions we jump to, or from our own perception of things. It’s so important to challenge our take on things and wonder if there might be another way of interpreting events. Rabbi Twerski also teaches that the key to harmonious relationships is self-esteem,” she says. “The great sage Rav used to run after people who had wronged him – and try to make peace. You can only do that if you feel whole inside, if you can leave your ego behind and pursue peace and unity. We are all so different! We learn that there are 70 faces to the Torah. We can be more tolerant, we can celebrate differences – Hashem certainly does!”

Rabbi Avtzon also touched on this, pointing out that even at our people’s inception there was never one path. “There were 12 sons, who became 12 tribes, who travelled 12 different paths while crossing the Yam Suf! We were always different! There was never a stage in Jewish history when we were all the same. But we weren’t threatened by diversity. We celebrated it! As an aside, this is why I’m a believer in big community shuls. To be part of such a community is to meet people of every stage and age, of many different levels of observance, and the cross-spectrum of socio-economic standards of living.

“Yes, there are many small shuls and shtibels all over Joburg which attract large swaths of the Jewish community, but they should never replace the big shul model. You see, a small shul is usually niche and boutique as it caters to a small group of people with similar interests, ages, and levels of observance. The big shul, however, is a one-stop shop giant hypermarket. It is a place for everyone. We meet people different to us; we compromise on our niche demands and expectations for the sake of the wider community. We celebrate diversity rather than merely tolerate it. It’s a place where grandchildren and grandparents sit together in shul. We need to squeeze in and fit together. We need to embrace and respect our differences, not create smaller and smaller niches where everyone thinks the same. G-d is not a radical. No one has the monopoly on the one way to serve Him. We each have something to give to each other,” he argues.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the negative we see in others is a mirror of the negativity within ourselves. It shows us where our work is. We are only seeing these flaws because they lie within us. It follows, then, that the more good we see in ourselves, the more we will see this reflected in our friends, family, and even strangers. “But relationships are hard, there are no easy answers, and it takes humility to navigate misunderstandings or negative judgements and look first and foremost within ourselves,” says Brigitte. “What I personally find helpful may seem counterintuitive: I pray for people that have hurt me or who I see as a threat in some way. When I ask Hashem to help and bless them, when I dig deep and really wish them well, it softens and diffuses negative feelings. Try it!” The Torah also tells us not to bear a grudge, not to take revenge, and not to judge a person until you have stood in his place. As they say, don’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes because that way you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes!

Thankfully, not every aspect of Ahavas Yisrael is such hard work! There are small wins to be had. “Smile at people!” Brigitte suggests. “I know it can be hard sometimes, especially when you get a cool reception, but it is so important.” We learn that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest Sage and leader of his time, always made sure to greet people before they greeted him. Rav Eliyahu Dessler also points out that it was Shammai – the Sage associated with his stricter approach to Jewish law – who taught that we should greet people with a smiling face[6] – not Hillel, who as we saw above taught us so much above love for each other.[7] Rav Dessler explains that this teaches that it is an obligation to smile at others and one who doesn’t return the greeting is called a thief – he has stolen his fellow’s self-worth!

At the heart of giving to each other is giving life’s most valuable currency: time. Take a minute to smile, to acknowledge a fellow human being, and affirm his or her worth, which is infinitely precious because he or she is in the image of G-d. The Talmud elaborates on the number of blessings one receives when he gives charity: “Rebbi Yitzchak says, ‘One who gives a coin to a poor person is blessed with six blessings and one who speaks kindly to him [whilst giving the coin] is blessed with [an additional] eleven blessings.” But you’ll notice the maths is totally off! Why more blessings for the kind words than for the money the poor person desperately needs? Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, mashgiach of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, called by his sefer Sifsei Chaim, explains[8] that what people want most is for others to show an interest and care. A smile, kind words, warmth, and showing an interest nourish far more than bread alone. Our primary need is to be seen, and that’s why doing this for another carries more blessing.

‘Seeing each other’ is a message that Mom of Boys author, influencer, and community activist, Casey Shevel, is passionate about sharing. “I believe so strongly in acknowledging and celebrating each other that I decided to write a book as an excuse to get up in front of women and talk about it!” she admits. “Often what stands in the way of this is jealousy. We see so much more of each other’s lives these days – more than ever before – it’s plastered all over social media. But it doesn’t always bring out the best in us. The first problem is that it’s all the glitz and glamour and holiday pics and none of the real daily struggles we all experience. So people are comparing themselves to something that doesn’t even exist. But secondly, it’s only good for me if you are shining your light! We are all given a piece of the world to perfect and complete. It’s a tiny piece of Hashem’s giant puzzle that we get to shape and bring to life in vivid colour. We are each given everything we need to accomplish this: the car, the house, the husband, the job, the looks, the job, and the talent. If we don’t have these things, it’s because we do not need them. The puzzle is only complete when every piece shows up, when your sides are smooth and fit perfectly into mine. And like a puzzle, no matter how magnificent the big picture is, even one missing piece spoils it. So, I do everything I can to be real, to share my journey without glossing over what’s ugly and difficult. That way we draw strength from each other and are brave enough to be vulnerable and ask for help. It gives permission to everyone else to not be perfect, but to keep shining their unique, beautiful, gorgeous light.”

In her book, Mom of Boys, Casey shares hilarious anecdotes with surprising depth, like how we can be each other’s cheerleaders, notice each other’s pain, and give what we can to add joy to another person’s journey. “Sometimes I think I’m too aware of the suffering in this world. I lie awake at night worrying about people and I’m pretty sure no one is having a sleepless night over me,” she laughs. But isn’t this deep empathy the ultimate secret of Ahavas Yisrael? No one can possibly love someone like they love themselves – and how many people do love themselves? But everyone can imagine themselves in their friend’s place, and what that might feel like.

This ability to empathise is what drives Casey’s multitude of chesed projects, from her matchmaking mission (she’s made 17 shidduchim!), to her singles events, to her Give a Damn campaign that raised R140 000 last year for families in need of Pesach essentials. It’s why last Rosh Hashanah she opened up a free pop-up store in a magnificent Morningside home, where women got to choose brand new clothing, be pampered and spoiled, and walk into shul feeling like queens. It’s why she produced beautiful new tablecloths for families in need last Rosh Hashanah which were included in Yad Aharon’s Yom Tov hampers. “I know what it’s like to hide a tear or a stain with a plate or a fork, and I wanted to ensure every family had a beautiful Yom Tov table they could be proud of,” she explains. “You’ve got to keep your eyes open, notice the people around you, and give. Don’t worry about what happens next, it’s enough to have brought a smile to someone’s face.”

The Days of Awe, where we get back in touch with the part of us that is one with everyone else and is a literal piece of Hashem, culminate in the joyous celebration of Sukkos and Simchas Torah. One of the central themes of Sukkos is of Jewish unity. No matter his or her socio-economic standing, level of religious observance, or Torah knowledge, a Jew steps inside the sukkah and is equal to everyone else there – encompassed by the mitzvah to dwell in the sukkah. Then we take the four species – lulav (palm), esrog (citron), hadassim (myrles), and aravos (willows) – and wave them together. The midrash[9] tells us that these four kinds represent four types of Jews, and the mitzvah can only be done with all four present and accounted for. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, explains[10] that an esrog is fragrant and has a good taste, like the Jew who learns Torah and does mitzvos. Torah is represented by taste, because of the pleasure we experience in learning it. Mitzvos represent fragrance because, like a beautiful smell is appealing but not filling, mitzvos are not as directly satisfying, and sometimes we do them without tasting their goodness. But even this paragon Jew is incomplete with others! And more than that, like an esrog that grows on the tree all year round, this Jew must actively grow and learn from every season, from every person he encounters. As the Mishnah teaches: Who is wise? He who learns from every person.[11] The lulav comes from a palm whose fruit has a taste but no fragrance, like a Jew who learns much Torah but doesn’t do mitzvos. It’s important to note that the analogy is not absolute – no Jew has no mitzvos! “The sinners of Israel are as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate [is full of seeds].” Rather we are talking about what area they focus on.

The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance but no taste, like one who performs mitzvos but doesn’t study, and the willow has neither taste nor fragrance. All four species are essential to complete the mitzvah. And the theme of unity (and botany lesson) goes even further. A lulav may be used for the mitzvah only if its leaves are bound together. The only species of myrtle that may be used for the mitzvah is that which has successive rows of three leaves each. In each row, the three leaves must be level with each other, with no leaf significantly higher or lower than another! The species of willow used also expresses the concept of unity, since it grows in bunches.

Thus, the message is clear and compelling. The way to begin the New Year is sitting side by side in a sukkah with our fellow Jews – no matter who they are. The way to truly connect to our Father in Heaven is to dance together with His children on Simchas Torah, celebrating our different gifts, seeing each other’s pain, and giving of ourselves in some small way to lighten their load.

From an essay by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt'll
Rabbi Israel of Rizhin (1796-1850) once asked a student how many sections there were in the Shulchan Aruch. The student replied, “Four.” “What,” asked the Rizhiner, “do you know about the fifth section?” “But there is no fifth section,” said the student. “There is,” said the Rizhiner. “It says: always treat a person like a mensch.”

The fifth section of the code of law is the conduct that cannot be reduced to law.
  1. Vayikra 19:18
  2. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in his book “Love Your Neighbor“ lists 41 ways to fulfil the mitzvah.
  3. Tractate Derech Eretz
  4. Heard from Rabbi Yehuda Stern.
  5. Chapter 2, Mishna 13
  6. Pirkei Avot 1:15
  7. Michtav M’Eliyahu, as brought by Rabbi Yehonasan Geffen in a piece called Giving with a Smile (aish.com)
  8. Sifsei Chaim, Moadim, 3rd Chelek, p. 275, footnote 11. As brought by Rabbi Yehonasan Geffen in a piece called Giving with a Smile (aish.com)
  9. Vayikra Rabbah 30:12.
  10. Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, Simchas Torah; Vol. IV, Sukkos; Vol. XIX, Sukkos – as written on chabad.org
  11. Pirkei Avot. 4:1

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