How Far Must My Love Extend?
by Rabbi Gershon Avtzon
We find that the most basic preparation the Jews did ahead of Matan Torah was strengthening Jewish unity. We see this from the Torah's own words that they gathered there as one – “Vayichan” – literally, he camped there, in the singular. Thus, the Jewish nation prepared to receive the Torah by focusing on cultivating genuine Ahavas Yisrael between themselves.
The source for the mitzvah in the Torah is in the verse “Love your fellow Jew as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva taught that this is the most fundamental principle of the Torah (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9).
Historically, the Rebbe initiated this special Mivtza on the 18th of Elul, 1976. The Rebbe announced that the 18th of Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, who was the founder of Chassidism, and of the Alter Rebbe, who founded the movement of Chabad-Lubavitch. They both sacrificed themselves beyond the letter of the law for the sake of their fellow Jews. We must learn from them and campaign about Ahavas Yisrael.
The Frierdike Rebbe writes (Hayom Yom 24 Teves), "My grandfather (R. Shmuel) asked the Tzemach Tzedek: What did Grandfather (the Alter Rebbe) intend with the words "ways of Chassidus" and what did he intend in the term “Chassidus”? The Tzemach Tzedek answered: The "ways of Chassidus" are that all Chassidim are to be like one family, with affection, as Torah teaches. Chassidus is vitality. Chassidus is to bring life and illumination into everything, to shed light even on the undesirable, to become aware of one's own evil exactly as it is, in order to correct it.
The Mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael is a great segulah for the Jewish nation. It is the foundation of the entire Torah. This is evident from the following story related in the Talmud (Shabbos 33a).
On one occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, "Make me a proselyte, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." At that point, Shammai chased him away with the measuring stick that was in his hand. When he came before Hillel, he also asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary; go and learn it."
When Jews show love for each other, Hashem is proud and gives the Jewish people new channels of blessing. There is a famous Chassidic story, regarding the power of a Farbrengen, a Chassidic gathering where those who attend give warm blessings to each other. After the Mezritcher Maggid passed away, the Alter Rebbe became a Chassid of R’ Menachem Mendel of Horodok. On one occasion, the disciples of R’ Menachem Mendel were sitting in Horodok farbrenging, and the Alter Rebbe was present. After speaking words of Torah, they began discussing various holy matters, while drinking spirits. In the middle of the farbrengen, one of the Chassidim stood up. This individual, lo aleinu, suffered a great deal from bad health, and the doctors could not help him. He began to cry, requesting of the other Chassidim to bless him with a complete recovery.
One of the Chassidim began to jest, "As if we have the power to give such blessings! How could you suggest such a stupid idea?" Others complained that he was placing too much faith in simple people, for blessings can only be given by individuals of unique stature, by the righteous of the generation.
But this did not quiet the Chassid. He continued to beg the Chassidim to bless him, pleading from his heart, with tears flowing from his eyes. Seeing this, the Chassidim started to sing a niggun, hoping that this would calm him.
"Quiet!" shouted the Alter Rebbe, stopping the niggun abruptly. Even the weeping Chassid stopped sobbing.
"Brothers and friends," announced the Alter Rebbe, "have you forgotten the teaching that the decrees of holy angels can be annulled by the students of our holy Rebbe? Dos vos es ken oiftaun a Chassidishe farbrengen ken malach Michoel nit oiftaun – what a Chassidic farbrengen can accomplish cannot even be accomplished by the Angel Michoel!"
As all those present were reminded of the teaching, they became inflamed with a fire of brotherly love, and they blessed their fellow Chassid with a complete recovery.
On that occasion, the Alter Rebbe explained the concept with an analogy. Children are naturally possessive of their own belongings, and they defend their own property from other children, in a display of selfish character traits. They do not care about others and worry only about their own possessions. This is a source of distress to their father.Therefore, the father hires an educator to train the children with good traits. After a period of time, the father watches his children again and sees them caring for each other, which gives him tremendous pleasure. Now he is much more likely to grant any requests that the children may have.
Chassidus also teachs that an act of goodness or kindness may be the single reason your soul descended into this world.
For seventy eighty years, the Baal Shem Tov says, a neshomo, a soul, may descend to this world solely to do a Jew a material favor and certainly a spiritual one.
Ahavas Yisrael also shows your love of Hashem. The Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said, quoting the Baal Shem Tov: ‘Love your fellow like yourself’ is an interpretation of and commentary on ‘Love Hashem your G-d’. He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G-d, because the Jew has with in himself ‘a part of G-d Above’.
Therefore, when one loves a fellow Jew - i.e., his inner essence - he is loving G-d. (Hayom Yom 12 Av)
Our Chachamim have spelled out the details of the fulfillment of this fundamental mitzvah. Chazal say (Sukka 49b) that Gemilut Chesed (loving-kindness) is greater than charity in three ways. Charity is done with one's money, while loving-kindness may be done with one's money or with one's person (e.g., spending time with a sick person). Charity is given only to the poor, while loving-kindness may be given both to the poor and to the rich (e.g., consoling one who is in mourning or depressed). Charity is given only to the living, while loving-kindness may be shown to both the living and the dead (e.g., by arranging a proper burial for a person who died impoverished).
The Rambam writes in Hilchos Dayos, "It is a commandment, incumbent upon every Jew, to love every single Jew as he loves himself, as the Torah says, ‘And you will love your fellow Jew as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). Therefore, each man must speak in praise of the other, and have concern about the property or money of the other, just as he has concern about his own property or money and wants honour for himself. One who takes honour by the humiliation of another Jew has no portion in the World to Come."
Finally, the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael is directly related to Moshiach.
The mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael is the mitzvah which hastens the coming of Moshiach. The first Bais HaMikdash lasted for 410 years and was destroyed because of idol worship. The Jews were expelled from Israel and experienced a relatively short exile in Babylonia. 72 years later, Ezra returned with them to Israel and built the Second Bais HaMikdash which lasted 420 years, but was consequently destroyed by the sin of causeless hatred (Talmud Yoma 96b). This second destruction has left us in the present exile for over two thousand years. Idol worship was the cause of an exile that lasted for 70 years, yet the sin of hating other Jews for no reason has caused an exile that is still in continuation for over two thousand years! Clearly, therefore, the sin of hating a fellow Jew is, in a sense, greater than that of idol worship. The Rebbe has explained that Moshiach will be brought by the opposite of this sin, causeless love, which is the true fulfillment of the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael.
The Rebbe added to the above (Shabbos Matos-Masei 5751): "As mentioned, this directive of Ahavas Yisrael is particularly relevant at present, for we now need to accustom ourselves to the spirit of the Redemption. Previously it had been explained that an emphasis on Ahavas Yisrael was necessary as a preparation for the Era of Redemption. Since the exile came about because of unwarranted hatred, we would nullify the reason for the exile by spreading love among our people. This in turn would cause the exile itself to cease.
"Since, however, to borrow an expression used by the Previous Rebbe, we have already completed all the spiritual service necessary to bring Mashiach, to the point that "we have even polished the buttons," we can assume that the reason for the exile has also been eradicated already. At present, therefore, the emphasis on Ahavas Yisrael comes primarily as a foretaste of the Era of the Redemption."