Rabbi Akiva described the verse "Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) as being “a great Torah principle.” (Jerusalem Talmud – Nedarim 9:4)
How do we fulfill the mitzvah to love your fellow man? Just as each of us has needs and does our best to satisfy them, so too we should view other people’s needs as our own. Whether the needs are large or small – whether it’s hosting someone in your home for a week or holding the door open for a friend – if you are aware of the situation, that’s a signal for you to help.
Think about a time when somebody really cared about you and reached out with unconditional love. Think about the bond that was created and imagine what the world would look like if we acted this way all the time.
There’s a deeper side to this as well. Giving to others was God’s premise for creating the world. After all, God is Infinite and by definition has no needs. So creation was an expression of pure altruistic giving.
Every human being is worthy of profound respect.
Our purpose in life is to emulate God. One of the most powerful ways we do so is by giving. When we give to someone, we recognize the common bond between us – our shared status as souls created in the image of God. Every human being – whether red, black, or a different religious perspective than me – is created in the image of God and thus worthy of profound respect. When we connect to their inner Godliness we transcend the physical barriers that appear to divide us.
Giving draws us closer, adding another drop of love and unity between us. This is the bedrock of creating a loving family; it is equally crucial to creating a united nation.
Jewish unity was a precondition for entering the Covenant at Sinai. And Jewish unity – pooling all our diverse talents and strengths – is likewise key to fulfilling our national destiny of creating a more spiritual and perfect world.
That does not mean we all need to be identical. Rather, unity means showing respect to each individual and appreciating their unique contribution to the collective whole. According to the Midrash, there are “seventy faces to Torah” and each of the Twelve Tribes had their own “gate in Heaven” through which their prayers entered. We are all on the same team – and each of us adds positively to the mix.
Especially in these challenging times, it is crucial that we build unity among Jews by engaging in acts of kindness, caring and tolerance toward others. The Talmud says that it was baseless hatred amongst Jews that brought about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Only through unconditional love will it be rebuilt.
So how do we do it?
Here are five practical and immediate ways to fulfill the imperative of "Love your fellow as yourself”:
1. Look for ways to help.
Maimonides (Character 6:3) writes that a person should be concerned about other people’s spiritual, emotional and material needs, just as one is concerned about his own needs.
Go out of your way to help others. Give a patient, listening ear (with cellphone off) when someone needs to talk. Make suggestions for someone who is trying to find a job or a marriage partner. Offer to grocery shop to give your spouse a break.
Make the commitment to practice one daily act of kindness. Put it in your day timer along with all your other goals, and track it to completion. At the end of the week, reflect back and take pleasure in having accomplished something important.
The key here is to be proactive. I was recently walking in Jerusalem and saw a man struggling with a map to find his way. Although he didn’t ask for help, I offered. I walked him in the direction he needed to go and we spoke for a few minutes. He was so appreciative, and I genuinely felt that I’d added a good drop into the global mix.
And don’t do things only for “people that you like.” The Talmud says it’s even greater to help those you have a strained relationship with. That’s because the act of giving will build love between you and help mend the rift.
2. Give the benefit of the doubt.
You don’t know a person until you’ve been in his shoes. In other words, you can never really know. Everyone has their challenges; everyone is moving at their own pace. This is the meaning of the Talmudic imperative: "Be patient in judgment" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).
Do you keep a different standard of observance than the next guy? Don’t judge. The Talmud says: "Nobody knows whose blood is redder." No one can judge the worth of another person because no one knows where the other is situated on the ladder of life – where he began and how many rungs he has climbed. Some people may be born smarter, and some with more talent in one area or another. But that doesn't make one individual any "better." Perhaps a thief, given his life's circumstances, is making greater, more difficult life choices than the finest rabbi.
Try focusing on seeing others with a good eye. Assume that they’re “doing the best with what they’ve got.”
3. Focus on the positive.
We all have bad days where we’re tense or disappointed. Although I may feel like letting out a burst of criticism, I try to flip it upside down (or right-side up, in this case) – to take that moment of potentially negative interaction and use it to say something complimentary, endearing. Something that will build the other person and build our relationship. It’s just a matter of flicking the switch, a decision to unify rather than divide.
When someone helps you out, express gratitude and don’t assume the other person “knows” they are appreciated. Everybody (even the most “annoying” person!) has something positive. Give a genuine complement and encourage their good traits. Everybody needs to hear praise – especially someone with low self-esteem. A kind word at the right time can inspire, lift, and even change a life.
Make genuine eye contact that communicates, “You are important.”
The Talmudic sage Shammai exhorts us to "greet every person cheerfully" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:15). No, not the fake kind at the checkout counter. Rather, genuine eye contact that communicates, “You are important” – and punctuated with a smile.
Another aspect to this is how we react to other peoples’ success. If we’re all in this together, then I will be thrilled for his success.
A corollary of this is to not speak negatively about others (Leviticus 19:16). Gossip is the verbal atomic bomb of relationships. It destroys marriages, businesses, friendships. Just because it's true doesn't mean you need to say it. Big people speak about ideas, average people speak about things, small people speak about people. Be big.
4. Respect elders.
There was a time when society accorded honor to the elderly. Today, when one's worth seems to be based on an ability to master the latest technology, the "older generation" simply cannot compete.
Judaism teaches that every old person has a special wisdom that comes with life experience. Humans are made up of two parts, physical and spiritual. As a person ages, the body weakens, thus enabling the spiritual side to exert itself to a greater degree. The Talmud delineates age 80 as peak spiritual strength – the prime of life!
Thus the Torah specifically instructs us to "honor the elderly" (Leviticus 19:32). On public buses in Israel, for example, the first row of seats is marked with a sign quoting this verse.
We even give honor even to one who no longer possesses full mental faculties. The tablets of the Ten Commandments, which Moses shattered, were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. This teaches that we must continue to respect the elderly, even when they are intellectually "broken."
5. Share wisdom.
One of the greatest gifts you can impart is the gift of wisdom.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg writes: Whenever you learn something – from books, lectures, or life experience – do so with the goal of sharing with others. If it was fascinating, how did it change you? What did you learn about living? And how can you transfer that insight to others? If something is worth learning, it's worth sharing.
Let’s say that your friend is struggling in marriage. If you have an insight into how to achieve marital harmony, share it. Invite your friend for coffee and, without being judgmental or intimidating, impart the wisdom that you know.
Ignorance is a terrible malady. Ignorance can cause untold suffering – mistreatment of children, wasted resources, and suffering in a dead-end job. All out of ignorance. Some diseases only a doctor can treat, but ignorance can be cured by everyone who takes wisdom seriously. When you reduce ignorance in the world, even by a little bit, you offer a great gift to mankind.
You don't have to be perfect to share. The key is to care and do the best you can. Connect with others, seeing their needs as your own. King David declares: Olam Chesed Yibane – the world is built through kindness. That is the essence of Judaism.
Get started building unity through kindness. Use the comments section below to share your successes and challenges.