“You shall not take vengeance; you shall not bear a grudge against members of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Vayikrah 19:18)

“Rabbi Akiva says: This is a great principle of the Torah.” (Sifra)

The commandment to love one’s fellow is unlike any other mitzvah of the Torah’s 613 mitzvoth. It is an all-encompassing outlook, attitude and foundation upon which all other interpersonal mitzvoth are predicated.  If one does not love other people, what will stop him from damaging their property, speaking ill of them, harming them, denying them charity, not paying their wages timeously and so forth? Love of one’s fellow is the glue that holds society together. Rabbi Steinsaltz (Weisfeld edition of the Humash) puts it this way: “Love is not merely positive interaction with another individual, but it is also an emotional attitude. The commandment to love one’s neighbor demands this emotional component as well. Nevertheless, from a legal perspective, it is impossible to demand these emotions from a person. Therefore, it seems that this commandment requires that an individual reflect on how to properly interact with his friend: to be sensitive and to keep his friend’s best interests at heart, just as he would for himself, and to refrain from doing anything to another that he would consider painful, unpleasant, uncomfortable, or distasteful. Hillel the Elder interpreted the verse as follows: That which is hated to you, do not do to your friend (Targum Yonatan; Shabbat 31a). This formulation constitutes the minimal requirement of the verse to treat another as oneself (see Bekhor Shor; Ramban).”

Before the seventh of October 2023, the State of Israel was coming apart at the seams as supporters and opponents of the proposed judicial reforms protested on the streets, on various media platforms and in the Knesset. There was extreme anger and resentment on both sides. People from the right denigrated those on the left and vice versa. Somehow (as often happens) religion was thrown into the mix and the secular were castigating the ultra-Orthodox groups. The latter did not remain quiet and fought back with equal vehemence. A stable government could not be formed. It almost felt as if the country would descend into civil war, God forbid. I vividly recall witnessing one protest on the streets of Jerusalem on a Saturday night when I was in Israel with my family in February 2023. Emotions were running high as hundreds of protestors carrying placards massed outside the President’s residence.

And then the pogrom of Simchat Torah happened. Suddenly, all the in-fighting was forgotten. There was a real enemy to deal with. In a complete turn-about, Israel soon became united in an unprecedented manner.  Achdut, or unity, was the new byword on the streets of Israel and on social media. Jews in the Diaspora rallied to assist the families of the victims of 7 October and to raise funds for the IDF. Ultra-Orthodox groups travelled to army bases with tons of food and sang and danced with the troops. Soldiers who had never donned tefillin asked if they could get a pair. There was a huge request for tzitzit vests. Shiva houses were visited by leaders from across the political spectrum. Former soldiers who were living abroad and may have been technically exempt from returning to Israel dropped whatever they were doing and ran to the closest airport to return to their platoons. In one instance, a wealthy donor stood at JFK airport in New York for hours offering to pay for the flights of any IDF member who wanted to return to Israel. A slogan was coined that appears all over Israel and the Jewish world: b’yachad n’natze’ach, “together (or united) we will be victorious!” Alas, this is not the first time that an enemy has brought us together and brought us closer to Hashem. The same happened when Pharaoh pursued the Israelites to the Red Sea and when Haman attempted to annihilate all the Jews of the Persian Empire.

Unfortunately, this unity has begun to crumble. The old fault lines between this type of Jew and that type Jew are starting to resurface. Demonstrations have picked up again. There are angry voices demanding that the Charedim be drafted to the army and just as angry voices from the Charedim refusing to do so. Some are calling for a complete destruction of Hamas while others want an immediate ceasefire. How can we reinstate the beautiful unity that typified Israel in the aftermath of October seventh? I recently heard a podcast on the subject of Achdut (Halacha Headlines episode 465). One of the guest speakers was Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, a community rabbi in Ramat Beit Shemesh and the director of the Tzalash organisation that offers spiritual and emotional support for religious soldiers and their families ( Rabbi Gottlieb listed three principles for maintaining unity, even with those Jews that do not share our religious or political views:

1. Humility and respect for other views. The issues that Israelis (and Jews elsewhere) are arguing about are exceptionally complex. Each person or group is entitled to their view but should have the humility to accept that their ‘opponent’ also has a valid opinion. There can be differences of opinion but these should not lead to rifts between Jews.

2. We should give others the benefit of the doubt. This concept is actually found in our parsha where the Torah (Vayikrah 19:15) states, “With righteousness you shall judge your counterpart.” Rashi, citing the Midrash (Sifra), explains that this statement is not just directed to formal judges but to every person: we should judge others favourably and give them the benefit of the doubt. Practically this implies that we should not automatically assume that our ‘opponent’ has a negative agenda or malevolent motives. They are most likely good, principled people who just want the best for the country. Why jump to conclusions and assume that the ‘other’ is trying to destroy you or your community?

3. We must keep in mind that we are all members of one, large family. There is a tendency to demonise someone with whom one disagrees and to label them as an ‘other’. But the Jewish people are a family. This should always be our starting point before entering into any discussion or argument. We have strong opinions and we hold them with passion but the person we are disagreeing with is our brother and sister.

Unity is always important but it is especially necessary during times of war. When one side of a conflict is at odds with one another, they are effectively handing their enemy victory on a plate. There is too much at stake here. Let’s do whatever we can to come together and, indeed, together we will be victorious!

    Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   

    Rabbi Liebenberg

    Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

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