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17 Tammuz 5763 - July 17, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
A Middos Workshop: Ahavas Yisroel -- the Oneness of the Jewish People

Based on Shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

Just a few weeks ago, we commemorated a monumental experience the likes of which never occurred before or since. Three million people stood at the foot of Har Sinai and heard the voice of Hashem, an event so astounding that their neshomos actually left them, and they had to be revived. The words of the posuk tell us, "Vayichan shom Yisroel negged hohor." Yisroel encamped there opposite the mountain. The singular vayichan indicates the complete unity that Bnei Yisroel displayed, in contrast to their other travels in which there was fighting. When Hashem saw their achdus, He said, "Now is the time to give the Torah!"

When Hashem offered them the Torah, they collectively responded, "Na'aseh venishma." This was not a pre- planned event. How could they have all responded with the exact same words at precisely the same moment? If two nevi'im come and tell us the same nevuah, we know they are false prophets, because two people do not say things exactly the same way. So how could three million people produce the same words at the same time? What brought them to this unprecedented unity?

When Amolek attacked the Jewish nation--or rather a segment of the nation that had been spit out of the protective cloud because of misbehavior--Moshe Rabbenu told Yehoshua to go outside of the cloud with him to help fight for those individuals. When Moshe's hands were raised, the Jews were successful. When his hands fell, the Jews failed. So Yehoshua helped Moshe Rabbenu raise his hands.

The mishna in Rosh Hashana asks what power lay in Moshe's hands. The mishna responds that in fact, Moshe's hands had no power, but when the Yidden looked up at the hands, they looked towards the heavens and remembered to put their trust in Hashem. The whole nation focused on this war fought for a few individuals. They were meshabeid es libom le'Avihem shebashomayim -- they subjugated their hearts to their Father in heaven. This common focus unified the entire Jewish nation.

Similarly, after Aharon Hacohen passed away, the protective cloud departed. The Canaanim (actually Amolek) managed to take a captive, a Canaani maidservant who was in the process of converting. The Jewish people poured out their hearts in prayer over this one person. They apparently understood the importance of the individual and of concern for even one Jewish soul.

Another example of this concern for the individual occurred before matan Torah. Hashem told Moshe Rabbenu to make a fence to separate the people from the intense kedushoh of the mountain. Hashem warned Moshe, Venofal mimenu rov, usually translated as "lest many fall from it." This translation is not accurate, since venofal indicates singularity.

Rashi comments that Hashem was worried that one individual would fall. From here we learn that one person amongst the Jewish people is a lot. Each person is a whole world. At Har Sinai, Bnei Yisroel sensed the importance of each person and this awareness unified them to the point that they were one man with one heart. Two prophets cannot say the same words, but one person can. The Bnei Yisroel were literally one person.

Achdus is the natural state of the Jewish people. If we do not feel that unity or that care for others, it is only for one reason: the self. Our absorption with ourselves does not allow for concern for others.

When I do not give special significance to myself, then I can consider the significance of others. This self- effacement allows me to notice the unique qualities of others. Chazal tell us that just as no two people have the same faces, likewise their characters differ. The less we are concerned with preserving our self-image, the more we can focus on others. The barrier between others and myself is, in fact, myself.

When the Jewish people camped at Har Sinai as one unit, they checked to see if others needed help pitching their tents before they pitched their own. Previously, they had prioritized their own needs. But their new awareness of the importance of others allowed them to take note of the needs of others.

We have countless opportunities to focus on the needs of others, whether it is as we walk down the street and see someone carrying heavy packages, or have a new neighbor who moved into the building. Burdened mothers with strollers coming off of buses, a small child waiting shyly for someone to help him cross the street, or a single friend who needs Shabbos invitations. If we keep our eyes open, we will notice numerous people in need of help.

In Shaar Hachessed, Rabbeinu Yonah says, "Acts of kindness--relating to ourselves or to our resources-- are obligatory, because one's life is for exerting effort for the good of his nation and others, whether rich or poor, for their betterment." He points to the posuk, "What does Hashem ask of you but to do justice, and love chesed . . . " (Devorim 10:12)

Daily conversation presents a tremendous opportunity for chesed. How often do we ask a friend how he is and not actually listen to the answer? When we speak to others, are we doing so for their sake or for ours? One way of testing this out is to note whether or not we allow the other to speak. We should tune into what others are telling us. If they reply to the question, "How are you?" with "OK," we should wonder why just "OK"? And we can share their burden.

Once, Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was observing two drunkards. One asked the other, "Do you love me?" The friend replied, "Yes." The first one asked, "If you love me, tell me what is bothering me." His friend said he did not know. The first one retorted, "So you do not really love me."

True love requires sincere interest in the other's well- being. If we really cared about others, we would know their pain.

A new family once moved into a certain community. A community member, Mr. Stein, discovered this new family two days before Sukkos. When Mr. Stein asked if they needed any help, they said that they were fine. But Mr. Stein did not leave it at that and soon found out that they had no sukkah, that the wood had been ruined when their basement was flooded. Mr. Stein got to work and built them a sukkah finishing only ten minutes before candlelighting. This is ahavas Yisroel.

Kol Yisroel areivim zeh bozeh. The entire Jewish people is responsible for one another. What does "responsible" mean, and how far does it reach?

The word for "responsible" is areiv, which literally means a guarantor. When someone takes out a loan, he must have a guarantor, a co-signer. In case the borrower does not repay the loan, the guarantor must.

Once, a wealthy man signed for a large loan of an acquaintance. When the time of payment arrived and the borrower did not appear, the guarantor had to pay it. From that point, he refused to guarantee a loan unless he was prepared to cover for it, in full. Although people often co- sign for loans, they generally do not contemplate the enormous responsibility. But this is what an areiv is. He actually takes the place of the borrower when necessary.

And this is the extent of the feeling of responsibility we should have for one another. I am held responsible for what you do, as if I did it myself.

The obligation to rebuke falls into this category. Chazal tell us that whoever could have protested and did not is charged with that sin.

The Tomar Devorah asks how we can be held responsible for our friend's actions. He explains that we have a tremendous misconception of who we really are. The Jewish people are really one collective entity. We are all segments of one all-encompassing neshomoh. If one Jew has committed a sin, the collective entity of Klal Yisroel has sinned, myself included.

Tomar Devorah continues that we are usually not responsible for the actions of others, because we could not prevent them. Although in truth part of our self committed those offenses, we are not at fault because they were beyond our control. "However," says Tomar Devorah, "when we could prevent them, we must do so and cannot claim innocence."

In those situations we allowed part of our self to sin and did not interfere with the offense. Chazal therefore sternly warn us that if we fail to admonish someone and to prevent his sin, we are held responsible for it. We cannot absolve ourselves from someone else's actions because, in truth, part of our self actually did commit the offense.

When Yaakov Ovinu and his offspring went down to Egypt, the Torah tells us they were shiv'im nofesh, literally seventy soul. Why not souls, in plural?

The Chachomim answer that the Jewish people are one soul, in contrast to non-Jews. Idolatry is rooted in selfishness. An idol is produced to serve its worshiper. However, the Jewish people are by definition one soul--one self.

Chazal's classic moshol demonstrates the uniqueness of this oneness. A man was traveling on a ship with many other people. He decided to take a drill and bore a hole in the floor of his cabin. Of course, when he drilled the hole the entire ship began filling up with water. When the man was confronted for his dangerous act, he responded that he was minding his own business and simply drilling in his own quarters. The lesson is understood--we're all in the same boat together; one nation with one soul.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that we really are one neshomoh divided into segments. If we could see beyond our physical barrier--our body--we would discover that the root of all our "selves" is one. All our neshomos stem from one point before branching off into their individual segments.

Since we begin from the same point, we share a fiercely common bond. Just as one person's body feels the pain of every limb, so can every Jew sense the pain of his fellow Jew. If I do not feel it, this indicates that I have placed barriers between him and me. Unfortunately, sometimes people choose not to associate with certain acquaintances. This is as "logical" as one hand choosing not to relate to the other one.

The sefer Chareidim clarifies how important each person is in the grand scheme of things. From Hashem's vantage point, none of us have significance without the totality, much as body parts are insignificant alone. When Hashem looks at us, He sees how we fit into the whole and how we affect it.

When the Jews received the Torah, they were ke'ish echod beleiv echod. They were not merely beyachad- together, but echod-one.

Why was it essential for Hashem to share the Torah with a completely unified nation? Sefer Chareidim explains that Hashem is one and His Torah is one, therefore it had to go to one.

Chareidim adds that Hashem only shares his intense relationship with a collective unity. Being One, Hashem chooses not to relate to individuals, because they are only parts of the larger entity, the collective one.

Chareidim continues that we have not merited Moshiach because we have not yet become a collective unit, Klal Yisroel. In the Shabbos Mincha service--which corresponds to the era of Moshiach--we say Atoh Echod veShimcho Echod umi ke'amcho Yisroel goy echod, You are One and Your Name is One and who is likened to Yisroel one nation? When this exile ends, all will recognize Hashem's Oneness. We can only value this Oneness when we are one.

In response to sinas chinom that stalls Moshiach's arrival, some well-meaning people promote ahavas chinom, baseless love.

But unlike hatred, love should have a basis. Ahavas Yisroel is all about developing our natural appreciation for our fellow limbs. Why is this so difficult? Because we tend to focus on one segment and highlight it as more important than the remainder. With such an outlook, sinas chinom festers. To combat this tendency, we should look at others as a part of our neshomoh.

The posuk in Mishlei tells us, "Kemayim ponim el ponim, ken lev ho'odam el odom." Just as water reflects the face looking into it, so does a person's heart reflect the feelings of another. Based on this verse, HaRav Chaim Volozhiner remarks that if a person is on poor terms with another and he does not manage to convince the other one to make up, this indicates that he personally harbors some hostility in his heart. The other person simply reflects that inner resentment. If he uproots all negative feelings, the friend would do likewise.

We counted for forty-nine days, and Shavuos came and went. From Pesach to Shavuos, we focused on improving our relationships with others, leading up to the giving of the Torah which required us to be in a state of national unity.

We now are in the midst of the days of Tammuz and Av, when we relive the devastation of the Temple's destruction. As we know, the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. If we can carry the lessons of Sefiras HaOmer with us, perhaps we will merit the building of the third and permanent Beis Hamikdash bmv'a.

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