“Loving the Un-Lovable”
By Rabbi Eli Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud
An election year is proverbially characterized by politicians doing a great deal of kissing. But upon whom do our candidates for public office choose to bestow their oscillatory gifts? Not upon the infirm elderly in hospital rooms, nor upon the unwashed, impoverished skid-row denizens. It is invariably the cute, cooing, fragrantly scented little baby who is the helpless recipient of politicians’ slobbering smooches. This is perfectly understandable, is it not? If you are to kiss, kiss the kissable.
According to Rabbi Akiva, the most important of all mitzvot in the Torah is the injunction appearing in this morning’s Torah reading bidding us “Thou shalt love your fellow as yourself.” This maxim encompasses the essence of the faith of Israel—to strive to engage in loving behaviors toward our fellows. However, one may inquire, who is the “fellow” we are bidden to love? Clearly some fellows are decidedly less lovable than others.
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ancestor, the Ropitchnitzer Rebbe, in addressing his Hasidic followers, emphasized that this mitzvah does not apply only to one’s “frum” fellow. It is easy to relate lovingly to the “like” and to bestow affection upon one’s fellow streimel and kapote bedecked Hasid. But what about the bare headed non-believer? What about the Litvak? Need one love such a person as well? Replied the Ropitchnitzer Rebbe…One is obligated by this mitzvah to love the other, the unlike, even the unlovable.
The immediately preceding lines in our Torah portion enjoin us not to hate others in our heart and to refrain from bearing grudges and exacting vengeance from our fellows.
A few years ago I attended a concert by Neshama Carlebach at my old shul, Shomrei Torah Synagogue, and I recalled a powerful moment in the life of Neshama’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, that focused on the injunction not to hate. Over the years Shlomo had performed on concert stages in countries all over the world except for one country, Germany. He could never bring himself to sing on German soil, he was precluded from doing so by the haunting horrors of the Holocaust.
But then there came a shocking turn of events. Carlebach performed a concert in Berlin! Some of his followers were incredulous and enraged. “How could you do it, Shlomo?” “How could you possibly go to sing on that cursed, blood-drenched, German soil?” Replied Shlomo, “If G-d had given me two neshamas (souls), I would probably not have gone there, for one of my souls would have persisted in hating, but since the Rebbono shel Olam gave me only one neshama, how can I continue to pollute it with hatred?”
Agree or disagree, one must respect the agony underlying Shlomo’s decision. At times it is all too easy to hate the “hate-able” and persist in one’s hatred. At times it is difficult to love the “unlovable”, and so we persist in limiting our kisses to cute babies. Our Torah presents us with a difficult challenge. We are bidden to strive to love our fellow humans, even those difficult to love, and should love fail us at these times, at least let not hatred possess us.