In this letter, we shall begin to discuss two mitzvos which will give us a deeper understanding of the Torah approach to social activism. Some heartfelt personal comments about a contemporary issue appear in the concluding section, “Related Teachings and Special Comments”:
A basic mitzvah of social activism is the mitzvah to emulate the Divine ways, and this mitzvah is mentioned in the following verse which describes our covenant with Hashem - the Compassionate One:
“Hashem will confirm you for Himself as a holy people, as He swore to you – if you observe the mitzvos of Hashem, your God, and you go in His ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9)
Maimonides, in his explanation of this mitzvah, cites the following teaching of our sages:
“Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Compassionate, so should you be compassionate; just as He is called Gracious, so should you be gracious; just as He is called Righteous, so should you be righteous; just as He is called Chasid - the One Who does lovingkindness - so should you be a chasid.” (Book of Mitzvos, #8)
Since human beings are created in the Divine Image, they have the capacity to emulate the ways of Hashem; thus, the Torah calls upon us to “go in His ways” - to emulate the Divine benevolence and compassion which is described in this verse: “Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works” (Psalm 145:9). The Divine benevolence and compassion is not limited to the People of Israel or even human beings; it extends to all His works! If we are to go in the Divine ways, our benevolence and compassion must extend to all creation.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarizes the theme of this mitzvah in the following words:
“As Hashem is compassionate, so you also be compassionate. As He loves and cares for all his creatures, because they are His creatures and His children, and are related to Him because He is their Father; so you also love all His creatures as your brethren.” (Horeb 72)
There is another mitzvah in the Torah which states, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 19:18). Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah that this is a Divine mandate to love each member of our community, the Community of Israel (Hilchos Deos 6:3). This is also the interpretation of Maimonides in his Book of Mitzvos, #206. If we already have a mitzvah to emulate the loving Divine ways, then why is there a special mitzvah to love all Israel?
The beginning of an answer can be found in Part 1 of this letter, where we described the activism of “Hatzalah” - a network of volunteer ambulance corps organized by Torah-committed communities. As we discussed, the loving and dedicated service that Hatzalah provides for the Jewish community, inspired an African American activist to develop a similar program for his own community. This is a clue to the major role of our small people. The goal of our history is to develop a loving and caring society which can serve as an inspiring model for other societies, as the Compassionate One proclaimed, “Nations will walk by your light” (Isaiah 60:3).
Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, a noted sage of the previous generation, once told a group of students: “We have to influence the nations of the world with ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” But he then pointed out that, paradoxically, this mitzvah obligates us to love every Jew! This means, said Rabbi Wasserman, that through this mitzvah, we can make “ahavah” - love - in the world. Through loving each other, we can serve as a model of love for all humanity.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Special Comments:
1. It is often easier to love the members of one’s own people, than to love the members of other peoples. The mitzvah to emulate the universal Divine love and concern therefore serves as a reminder that our love and concern should not be limited to our own people. There are some individuals, however, who find it easier to love other peoples than to love their own people. They focus on the imperfections of their own people, and they form a romantic, idealized picture of other peoples. This attitude leads some Jews to become involved in helping other peoples, while ignoring the needs of their own people. The mitzvah to love our neighbor acts as a corrective to this attitude, as it reminds us that love begins with our own people.
2. It is written, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 19:18). According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the concluding statement, “I am Hashem,” indicates that the love for our neighbor should be extended to Hashem's world. Through the words, “I am Hashem,” explains Rabbi Hirsch, the Creator is conveying the following message:
“I, Hashem, the personification of love, am Father of all beings around you, have called them all, like you, to life and well-being. If you love me, and because you love me, love My children; rejoice in their well-being, see in each My work, My child; in his welfare the prospering of My work and My child, in his woe the decay of My work, the suffering of My child. Love therefore the Master in the work, the father in the child.
Finally, I am Hashem, the personification of love, Who has chosen the human being to be the instrument of this love. Do you, human being, not see how this love is the finest flower of this mission? How do you raise yourself above the stone and the plant and the animal? Is it not through devoting yourself of your own free will to the welfare of the world around you? And this is what love effects. Your whole activity belongs to God's world; first then, belong to it with the source of your activity - with your heart. Carry in it love for God's world, above all for your fellow human being, the first and worthiest recipient of your beneficent activity. Carry love in your heart; it is this which makes you a human being and an Israelite.” (Horeb. chap. 16)
Yes, the human being is special, as the human being is created in the Divine image with the capacity to emulate the Divine love and concern for all creation. This is why the human being was appointed to be the caretaker of God’s earth. As we discussed in our previous series, “Relating to Other Creatures,” there are some vegetarian and animal rights activists who fail to recognize the unique and sacred potential of the human being, as they view the human being as just a sophisticated animal. We, the People of the Torah, must therefore convey the following message:
We will not help animals by lowering the dignity and importance of human life. On the contrary, the best way to help animals is to raise the world’s consciousness of the ethical and spiritual potential of the human being to emulate the universal Divine compassion and love.
This is why I wrote a
heartfelt letter of protest when the editor of a Jewish vegetarian
publication recently endorsed a book which does not accept the above
principle of our heritage. This book also distorts certain Jewish
teachings, and it has a title which degrades the human dignity of
Holocaust victims. In fact, this book was a major source of inspiration
for the offensive PETA exhibit which equated Holocaust victims with
animals who are killed for food. My letter cites a statement from the
head of PETA acknowledging the connection between this author’s book and
their exhibit; moreover, the statement says that their exhibit was “very
much in keeping both with the spirit and goals of his book.” A copy of
my letter is available upon request.
3. This is Part 2 of the letter dedicated to the memory of my mother. The following is the direct link to a previous letter in our series, “My Mother, the Service Maven,” which describes her social activism in our neighborhood:
The archive of our series can be found on the website of Hazon