Chesed and Yirah: The Two Pathways to Loving our Fellow Jews

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In the Sefer Yereim from Rebbe Eliezer Mi’mitz on the mitzvah of “Vahavtah L’reyacha Kamocha” he teaches us an amazing insight into this enormously important mitzvah. He writes as follows:

“And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself for I am Hashem”, He then proceeds to explain the verse as follows. “The mitzvah is to be aware of and do things to your neighbor that he will appreciate and to avoid doing things that he will be pained by. It seems that the main reason to live this way and treat others this way is because of the end of the verse “…for I am Hashem”. He then proceeds to explain further. “And if you will ask how can I know what my neighbor appreciates and what causes my neighbor pain, am I some kind of prophet? To that the verse says “Kamocha” by you looking in to yourself and knowing what you appreciate and what causes you pain you can discover the answer and project to others”

Let us analyze these words of the Yereim. On one hand he makes the mitzvah sound easy. I am Hashem therefore you must and CAN love your neighbor. If you ask how because I am not a prophet, then the answer is “Kamocha” look into yourself. How does this Yereim make sense? If the answer is to be found inside of oneself, then why would a person ask “how can I know”? If a person must be a prophet to gain this knowledge, then what is the solution to look inside of one’s self? The Yereim is teaching us that there are two totally different points of departure to fulfilling the mitzvah of loving your neighbor. Both ways require getting beyond the selfishness of the body and using the soul. However, one is using the soul by connecting directly to a deeper awareness of Hashem and the other is using the soul to connect directly to the needs and sensitivities of others.

Approach number one is when you are completely real with “for I am Hashem”. When I am connecting in real time to the reality of Hashem as the master of the universe, and as the source of all life and being, then I can naturally know what my neighbor appreciates and what causes him pain. In that state of consciousness there is no challenge blocking me from performing this mitzvah properly. Through this state of consciousness I am connected to a deeper and more qualitative inner dimension of myself, of my surroundings, of the events taking place around me, and most importantly within my relationships. Through this state of consciousness it is not challenging at all to grasp directly what others appreciate and what causes them pain because through this consciousness I am connected to the level of deeper vision and insights in Hashem’s will.

The second approach is when I believe that Hashem is the master of the world, and that He is the source of all life and being, but I am not integrating that into my perspectives and into my experience right now in everything I am doing. In such a position I may naturally get along well with some people but have a tremendously difficult time getting along with others. When I am within this frame of mind I can’t see beyond myself and my own personal interests. This is an impossible state within which to fulfill the mitzvah of “love your neighbor”. To this the Torah says – not all is lost because you can still project from within this frame of mind by understanding what you appreciate and what causes you pain and then applying that to others and thus know how to treat them. This tool is not based on “selfishness” it is based on fairness. When I look into myself honestly and fairly with an eye outward to project to others I can discover a path of how to treat them correctly.

The Tanya in Chapter 32 offers a very deep insight into this second approach. He explains as follows:

“When a person works on overcoming the lowliness and frailty of the body and the lower soul he has direct access to personal joy and especially to the mitzvah of “Vahavtah L’reyacha Kamocha” with every Jew regardless of their position. For once a person sees the lowliness and frailty of the body he gains access to the soul and its loftiness and broad vision. He can see then how all souls come from the same source and how we all have one father. This is why the Jewish people are called brothers – because of their spiritual connection and unity. It is clear in this approach and this level that it is only the bodies that separate us and divide us. And therefore anyone who makes their body the main aspect of their lives will never be able to properly perform the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow Jew. And this is the meaning of the Gemara in Shabbos 31a where Hillel taught the convert that the way to reach completion in the entirety of Torah and avodas Hashem is through the mitzvah of “Vahavtah L’reyacha Kamocha.”

This again supports the idea of the two approaches in the Sefer Yereim. On one level if a person uses his soul to connect directly to Hashem through Yirah and breaks out of the shackles of the body that way he will also treat others properly. The Tanya speaks about this approach in earlier chapters. Alternatively he may activate the power of the soul and use it as a way of breaking out of the shackles of the body in order to become aware of his tremendous unity with others on a spiritual level. Based on the Sefer Yereim above and the explanation in the Tanya we can now understand a fascinating Rashi in the Gemara in Shabbos 31a. The Gemara relates there:

“A gentile once came to Shammai and requested to be converted to Judaism and taught all of the Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away by using his measuring stick. This gentile then came in front of Hillel with the same request. Hillel converted him and said ‘what is despised to you to your friend you should not do’ – this is the whole Torah, all the rest is just commentary on this idea go now and learn it.”

This Gemara seems simple enough, Hillel had discovered that the mitzvah of “love your neighbor” is the essence of the entire Torah. Assumedly this means that a person must focus on becoming sensitive to the needs and feelings of others and if he is successful at this he has fulfilled the essence of what the Torah is trying to bring us to. However, Rashi there in his explanation of the Gemara adds a level of depth to the understanding of this Gemara. He says there in his comments to the words in the Gemara:

“That which is despicable to you don’t do to your friend”, ‘Your friend and your fathers friend do not forsake’ (Proverbs 27) [who is your friend and the friend of your father] this refers to Hashem, the meaning of that verse [and of the words of the Gemara[ is therefore ‘don’t transgress the will and words of Hashem’ because behold you know that you despise it when your friend transgresses your will and your words. An alternative explanation of the Gemara is ‘Your friend’ means literally your friend and the Gemara means don’t rob, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, and the bulk of the mitzvos focus on these aspects of care in the sensitivity of the feelings, rights, and needs of others.”

Rashi understands that there are again two pathways to reach completion in keeping all of the Torah. The first way is called “bein adam l’makom” – between man and Hashem. The fundamental rule is that you must respect the will of Hashem and not transgress it the same way you would want people to relate to your will. The second way is called “bein adam l’chaveiro” – between man and his fellow. The fundamental rule is to be sensitive to the feelings, needs, and rights, of your friend in order to not cause him pain and in order to be a force of goodness to others, the same way you would want them to behave towards you. It seems from Rashi’s explanation that not only are the two ways we saw above in the Yereim methods to perfect the mitzvah of loving our neighbor but rather they are also ways to achieve completion in the overall service of Hashem.

One interesting question that arises here is why Rashi doesn’t seem to think that “bein adam l’atzmo” is a pathway on its own to completion in all of Torah? The answer in light of what we have learned so far is likely as follows. Torah is inherently demanding of a person to get beyond themselves in order to achieve completion. Therefore, the only way to achieve this is either by becoming totally focused and aware of the will of Hashem or to the will of your fellow man.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe discovered an amazing insight directly related to this idea. In the Sefer Alei Shur Volume 1 Shar 2 Chapter 13 he explains the Gemara in Sukkah 49b that implies that there is an inherent connection between Chesed and Yiras Hashem. The Gemara indicates that one who masters one has natural access to the other.

He asks “what could possibly be the inherent connection between chesed – loving kindness and Yiras Hashem – reverence to G-d?” He says “the common denominator between chesed and Yirah is that you are looking beyond your own self interest. In chesed you look beyond your own self interest to become aware of the needs and interests of others. In Yirah you look beyond your own self interest to become aware of the will of Hashem. However, someone who only focuses on themselves doesn’t look beyond themselves at all”. He says “such a person is comparable to someone who is sitting in a room with the doors and windows closed up to an extent where he has no access or view of anything going on outside. When he opens up the window just a drop he immediately sees everything the heavens and the earth. So too when a person is only focused on themselves they don’t see anyone or anything else because the windows and doors of their own hearts are completely closed. The second they open the window of their heart a little bit they see everything. They see Hashem and they see others.”

The Gemara in Pesachim indicates that when a person first starts off in avodas Hashem it is natural to be self focused and self centered. The Derech Hashem and the Chovos Halevavos explain that the way Hashem designed us is that our body and our lower soul is in power of our lives for most of our early and formative years. We are trained from a very young age to be focused on our own interests. However, as a person grows and matures he gains access to a higher level of self – the soul. At that point if he chooses to he can look beyond his personal interests and needs to see Hashem and to see others. This requires personal growth and change. It requires effort to refine our focus and our perspective to constantly maintain awareness and sensitivity to the will of Hashem and to others. Of course the reason why Hashem gives us so many formative years to focus on ourselves is because “if I am not for myself than who will be for me” and “your own life comes first”.

It is of course very important that a person should develop instincts of self preservation and self interest so that he will not be taken advantage of in life. However, that element of life has a limited scope in our overall avodas Hashem. Once a person possesses basic self preservation and self interest capabilities he really needs to graduate to the path of refinement and completion which must by definition take a person in one of two main directions. Either a person becomes focused on others, or he becomes focused on Hashem. Once he masters one of these paths he has natural access to the other as we saw in Rav Wolbe.

Based on everything we have learned above it is now clear that much of the challenge we face today in terms of our difficulties in relating to Hashem and our difficulties in overcoming the baseless hatred in our society is rooted in an inability to overcome selfishness and personal interest. In an odd but rational way if we just worked on overcoming the shackles of the raw pursuit of materialism for purely selfish motives we would already be much closer to having access to loving our fellow Jews. However, even if we take steps towards ruchniyus and away from gashmiyus we need to know there is not only one path to reach the goal. Some may find that a path of true Yiras Hashem will lead them to success in this mitzvah and in all of Torah. Others may find that a path of chesed will lead them to success in this mitzvah and in all of Torah. Both are true because they are rooted in the same principle which is transcending self. This is the foundation of all personal growth and it is also the foundation of all avodas Hashem. By committing to growth in this area we are not only becoming bigger people and bigger ovdei Hashem, we are also automatically solving our problems of selfishness and baseless hatred. May Hashem help that we should all find ways and means to take steps in this process and hasten the coming of the final redemption speedily in our days.