Letting Go with Love: Resolving the Paradox of Ahavas Yisroel

Sasha Balofsky, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Ahavas Yisroel / Essays 2018

Your close friendship has soured into tit-for-tat bursts of fury and verbal abuse. Your romantic relationship has faltered as you realize your partner holds fundamentally different values. Your family member’s deteriorating mental state means that she/he is no longer a healthy or safe person to engage with. How do you let go of the relationship but continue loving the person?

One of the greatest challenges everyone faces in life is that of the ‘broken heart’. Whether it’s a friendship that has become unhealthy or a romantic relationship that simply isn’t working out, a person dealing with the loss of a once close bond faces the question of how to let go of someone they love with dignity and respect for oneself and the other person involved. How do we practice ahavas yisroel, love for one’s fellow Jew, when that love can no longer be expressed in the form of a relationship? What’s more, how do we move on from someone without giving into the temptation of lashon hara (gossip) or sina (hatred) for the former loved one?

Chassidus leads us to the resolution by first answering three fundamental questions: what is the connection one Jew has to another, what is the purpose of the broken heart, and what is true ahavas yisroel. By answering these three questions, we can determine how to love our fellow Jew even when it is no longer possible or appropriate to have a conventional relationship with them.

Interconnected Existence: The Jewish bond

As the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya, all Jewish souls come from the same Divine Source and therefore are part of one whole, much as the limbs are all components of the one body [1]. Just as an arm may serve a different function than a leg, so too each Jewish person has a distinct purpose or function that only he/she can accomplish [2]. When each limb is doing what it is supposed to do, the body is able to go beyond mere survival and thrive in the execution of meaningful tasks. The Jewish people have a similar interconnected existence; each person contributes his/her life’s purpose to the well-being of the entire group, and complete unity will allow the Jewish people to transcend mere survival and bring about the Messianic era: a time when all the world’s people will experience total peace and harmony in their shared recognition of G-d. Thus, each Jewish individual depends on the others, and it is not possible for any one Jew to have a completely severed existence from any others.

The Broken Heart and G-d’s Gift of Epiphany

If we are all meant to be connected, why do some of our relationships with fellow Jews deteriorate? In Iggeret HaKodesh, the Alter Rebbe explains that even though each individual Jew has free will and can choose how to act towards another, the consequences that we experience from each individual’s actions are nonetheless directly from G-d [3]. In other words, G-d directly causes the suffering we experience from a failing relationship, not the Jewish individual. This suffering is meant to bring about an epiphany about our purpose in the world. The epiphany that one is meant to experience obviously depends on the individual: perhaps one Jew will learn to be more assertive while another will obtain clarity about his/her moral values. Regardless of the specific revelation, the Jewish individual’s discovery bring him/her one step closer to fulfilling their purpose in this world and bringing about the Messianic era. Thus, the failed relationship is G-d’s ‘gift in disguise’, the pain that will ultimately lead to universal love and harmony in the Messianic age.

Taking Ahavas Yisroel to the Next Level

Failed relationships do indeed serve a purpose in our lives, but we are still obligated to “love our fellow Jew as ourselves” [4]. How does one demonstrate love outside the framework of a typical relationship? The Frierdiker Rebbe explains that there are three levels of ahavas yisroel that correspond to the three levels of loving G-d: bechol levavcha (loving “with all your heart”), bechol nafsh’cha (loving “with all your soul”), and uvechol meodecha (loving “with all your might”) [5].   For the purpose of this essay, we will only focus on bechol levavcha and uvechol meodecha.

The lowest level of love, bechol levavcha, involving loving a fellow Jew within the limits of one’s reason; recognizing that all of us come from the same G-dly source, we express love for our fellow because we recognize them to be an extension of our own divinely-sourced essence and therefore worthy of our love [6]. In practice, this type of love is witnessed when one Jewish person encounters another and seeks to help him/her find a job, a spouse, or assist in some other manner. These type of actions are motivated by moral logic: every Jew is inherently worthy of love and therefore I should show him/her love through my actions. At this level of love, a Jew demonstrates kindness to another in a manner that is possibly beneficial to oneself (that Jew may or may not return the kindness) but is most definitely not harmful to oneself.

The Frierdiker Rebbe reveals that the third or highest level of love, uvechol meodecha, involves a great deal more than recognition of the value of another’s existence; uvechol meodecha involves self-sacrifice, the giving of oneself for the sake of the other Jew with no ulterior or selfish motives behind the action [7]. While we tend to think of self-sacrifice as giving up one’s very life for another, in fact this term can encompass any altruistic action in which we not only do not benefit but actually experience suffering in order to help our fellow Jew.

At first glance, the Frierdiker Rebbe seems to be suggesting that the highest level of love means always helping a fellow Jew even if it causes one immense pain, yet this is not the case. In fact, the he explains that one should maintain a distance from a fellow Jew that is a negative influence, stating ”just as one man exerts an influence on his friend, so in turn does his friend exert an influence on him” [8]. The Frierdiker Rebbe is discussing the limits of helping a fellow Jew take on more mitzvot, noting that such friendships must maintain boundaries lest the individual being helped influence his friend to diminish in doing mitzvot. We can infer from this explanation that any relationship in which one Jew could have a significant negative moral influence on the other must have even greater boundaries. Thus any relationship that evokes overwhelming amounts of hatred, anger, and emotional or physical cruelty would qualify as a relationship where one should maintain limits, since any of the aforementioned feelings and/or actions qualify as sinful thought or behavior. Every Jew also has an obligation to maintain one’s health in order to protect his/her life, and thus any relationship that causes one excessive emotional or physical harm violates the halacha of pikuach nefesh or guarding one’s life [9]. Maintaining a conventional relationship (phone calls, in-person conversation, etc.) in any of these scenarios would not fulfill uvechol meodecha since the suffering from maintaining the relationship would cause the Jew to diminish in mitzvot and/or actually sin.

So then how does one fulfill uvechol meodecha in such situations, scenarios in which we can no longer maintain a relationship with a fellow Jew in any of the conventional ways? The Frierdiker Rebbe hints at the answer when discussing the curious incident between R. Pinchas of Korets and the Maggid of Mezritch. In 1750 just prior to the celebration of Sukkos, R. Pinchas wrote to the Maggid stating that “at the very moment I was privileged to be thus remembered [on this Yom Kippur”], I felt it here.” [10] The Frierdiker Rebbe explains that the reason R. Pinchas was able to feel the Maggid’s consideration of him from thousands of miles away is because thought has immense power independent of action. Not only is thought the “starting point for action” in the sense that one’s thoughts may eventually influence him/her to take certain actions to help one’s fellow, but even positive thought by itself can “help a distant friend materially and spiritually” [11]. The Maggid accomplished exactly this when he thought of his friend R. Pinchas and helped him reach a higher spiritual state on Yom Kippur.

The Frierdiker Rebbe thus presents us with a way to fulfill uvechol meodecha in the failed relationship: we must direct our thoughts to the spiritual, physical, and material benefit of the person with whom we can no longer engage in the physical world. The emotional pain/suffering that arises from altruistic thought alone will not cause us to commit the sins of anger and hatred nor is it likely to threaten the obligation of pikuach nefesh, since the negatively influencing fellow Jew no longer has any actual presence in our day-to-day life. Yet the choice to actively think and pray for such a person is in fact an act of self-sacrifice, likely because the person we are thinking about has sought to hurt us (even though the hurt/suffering itself in fact is directly from G-d). What’s more, it can be emotionally painful to devote one’s thoughts of love to someone we can no longer talk to or interact with any conventional manner. There is no reciprocity in such a relationship; our thoughts and prayers will never be recognized by the person for whom we are devoting our mental and emotional energy. It is thus a truly altruistic act: the fulfillment of uvechol meodecha.

In Summary:

There is no escaping our fellow Jews, even the ones with whom we are no longer destined to interact with any of the typical ways. We’re all divine sparks from the same source and all affect each other. Yet we can overcome the temptation of sina and lashon hara by recognizing our relationship pain is the work of Hashem, and has the holy purpose of bettering ourselves and bringing the Messianic era closer. As for fulfilling Ahavas Yisroel, G-d doesn’t ask us to love at the expense of our well-being; we are allowed to love from afar. With the power of our thoughts, we can truly help our fellow Jew. We have the opportunity to love at the highest level, uvechol meodecha, by praying and contemplating the best experiences for those we can no longer connect to in day-to-day life.

A Practical Guide to Distanced Love:

  • Make a list of all the positive contributions the person has made to your life. Look at it before you think and pray for them to increase your love.
  • Contemplate how the person has changed you and/or the direction of your life. Can you see any changes that were important, changes that bettered you? Ponder why G-d put this person in your life and what their contribution was to you. Remember, their contribution didn’t have to be intentional.
  • Set aside a small segment of time each day to think about and pray for this person. Once this period of time has passed, don’t devote additional thoughts to the individual. This is to ensure that the person doesn’t cause you to have thoughts of bitterness or anguish that interfere with your daily life.
  • It’s ok to start small. It may be too hard to wish a former romantic partner a happy marriage or a hurtful family member that she always be loved by her family and friends. You can start by simply wishing that person a good day. As your anger or hurt wanes over time, you can build up to bigger, more positive thoughts and prayers.
  • Remember the source of all pain is G-d. Rather than dwelling on the anger or sadness you feel toward the person, direct that pain to G-d. Talk to G-d about how you feel.

1. Iggeret HaKodesh, Ch. 31
2. Ibid.
3. Iggeret HaKodesh, Ch. 25
4. T., Hilchot Deot 6:3
5. Sefer HaSichos 5705, pp. 183-185
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. I, p. 11
9. See preface to M.T., Rotzeach U’Shmirat Nefesh
10. Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. I, p.
11. Ibid., p. 5