Love Your Fellow
Third Place Winner of the MyLife Essay Contest
Sitting on a plane crossing the Pacific Ocean, I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me. She told me that she was on her way to give a lecture on improving personal relationships. She asked me what I do.
“Well,” I answered, “I give classes to adults on Bible and Chassidic teachings.”
“Chassidic teachings? I suppose that’s all about a lot of do’s and don’ts.”
“Actually, it’s not at all about that. For example, one of my favorite Chassidic topics is on improving your personal relationships ….!”
She took a moment to digest this. “I’ll have to get on to my Rabbi about that. I had no idea that Chassidic teachings were relevant to this subject!”
Interpersonal relationships are a subject that is of universal relevance. People need to live among other people for practicality and for their emotional wellbeing. Yet, although this is both natural and necessary, relating to one another in an optimum way does not always come with ease. In fact, when no thought or work goes into how one should deal with the people around them, the resultant interactions can be quite disastrous. Chassidus has a lot to say on this topic, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to study some of the Chassidic texts on issues of interpersonal relationships. In my own life, I have tried to implement what I have learned from Chassidic concepts such as: harmony below elicits unconditional love from above; the interconnection of souls; what one sees in others a reflection of one’s self; the power of words both positive and negative; and the greatest potential is found in the most challenging of characters. Applying ideas like these has certainly made a difference to my life!
[aside] When no thought or work goes into how one should deal with the people around them, the resultant interactions can be quite disastrous. [/aside]
In 1979, my husband and I were a starry-eyed young couple, excited about travelling to the other side of the world as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We were privileged to receive a special booklet from the Rebbe himself, with his signature inscribed inside. It was entitled “Kuntress Ahavas Yisrael”, a booklet detailing the mitzvah of caring for each Jew). I studied each page assiduously, and have taught from it many times. Later, I found this topic addressed from many different angles in various places in Likutei Sichos. Here are a few of those concepts and my understanding of them.
- Unconditional love between people elicits G-d’s unconditional love(1) Just as parents appreciate when their children get along well and truly care for one another, so too does G-d appreciate when His children care about each other. He deals with people as they deal with others- our acts of tolerance and kindness draws tolerance and kindness to us, from Above.
- All of the Jewish people make up one collective(2) We are all truly one. Both the Alter Rebbe(3) and the Tzemach Tzedek(4) explain that each limb is intrinsically connected to the other limbs, so much so, that if one has a sore toe it affects the rest of the body. (Perhaps we can say that just as each cell contains the DNA of the whole person, each Jew contains within himself a part of every other Jew in the world). The Tzemach Tzedek goes on to say that if one rejects his fellow Jew, he is actually rejecting a piece of himself(5).
- The fault you see in someone else is a reflection of your own In a talk on Parshat Noach(6), the Rebbe mentioned the Baal Shemtov’s insight, that when one sees a fault in someone else, he is really ‘looking in a mirror’ and what he sees is really his own shortcoming, reflected. The Rebbe elaborated that this is especially true when the fault he sees in the other person angers or upsets him.
- The power of words(7). When G-d created the world, He created it through speech, as in “let there be light”(8). Chassidus explains that the actual letters of these ten utterances are the building blocks of all matter, and that it is G- d’s words that form what we perceive as reality(9). Man was created in the image of G-d(10), and this is especially apparent by the righteous. Just as G- d’s speech has power to create, so does a person’s words have some of that power. When a person speaks negatively about someone, it can bring out that latent bad trait, while speaking positively about someone helps make them blossom! This is not only effective when the praise is heard by the person being spoken of, but even when the positive words are spoken out of his presence(11).
- The most challenging of characters hides the greatest potential(12). In Pirkei Avos it states that one should judge every person meritoriously(13). At first glance this sounds naive. Although one should not be hasty in judgement, not everything everyone does is with good intentions. Certainly one should never excuse or justify bad behaviour. One can, perhaps, seek to understand what led the other person to be the way he is, but that does not imply merit. How can an awful person, who has done awful things, be judged meritoriously?
The Rebbe applies a simple but profound concept: G-d doesn’t give any of His creations challenges without supplying the strength and abilities to overcome those challenges(14). It stands to reason, then, that the greater the person’s challenge, the greater the tools G-d has provided for him. By viewing the bad behaviour as proportional to the person’s great potential, one can find merit in everybody(15).
The Talmud tells of Reish Lakish, a Jew who had a colorful career as a gladiator and then as a highwayman, and what happened when he met Rabbi Yochanan, the leading Torah scholar of his time. One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah. — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not. Subsequently, [R. Johanan] taught him Bible and Mishnah, and made him into a great man(16).
What exactly happened here? At the beginning of this narrative, Resh Lakish puts strength, beauty, and women as his priorities, but then leaves it all to study Torah. What did Rabbi Yochanan say that made him turn his whole life around?
Rabbi Yochanan looked at the uncouth gangster, and saw the great potential hidden within. That great strength that served him so well as a gladiator indicates a great spiritual strength waiting to be tapped. And as soon as someone recognized this and showed him what he could be, Resh Lakish was ready to let his true self emerge.
Just imagine putting these principles into practice in your daily life:
Your neighbor is blocking your driveway, and you consider calling a tow truck at his expense…..STOP! Remember: Unconditional love between people elicits G- d’s unconditional love. Instead, you opt for harmony. You call him and calmly ask him to move his car.
Your brother-in-law makes another thoughtless remark, and you resolve never to invite him again….STOP! Remember: All of the Jewish people make up one collective soul. By excluding someone you are cutting off a part of yourself. You decide that your brother-in-law is not toxic enough to warrant amputating him from your life.
It really bothers you when your employer talks like he’s smarter than everyone else… STOP! Remember: The fault you see in someone else is a reflection of your own shortcoming. Uh oh, is that what I sound like when I’m organising a fundraiser?
Your son is not doing well in school; you are upset… STOP! Remember: The power of words. Instead of telling him off, you praise his effort and his small successes.
Your daughter is stubborn and never listens; you wonder where you went wrong… STOP! Remember: The most challenging of characters hides the greatest potential. You look at her with a discerning eye and see her strength of character, determination, and initiative.
These are some Chassidic concepts that, when put into practice, can enhance personal relationships, and generate harmony between people. This is one of the fundamental goals of Chassidus(17). It is no coincidence that Chabad is also called Lubavitch, which means ‘the town of brotherly love’.
Mina Gordon grew up in Chicago, but lives now in Australia with her husband and children. She has been teaching Torah classes to young adults and women for over thirty years.
Footnotes and Sources
1. Tanya Likutei Amarim, Chap. 32.
2. Tanya Igeres Hakodesh, end of Chap. 22.
4. Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvas Ahavas Yisrael. Ohr HaTorah Shoftim.
6. Likutei Sichos: vol. 10, p.24-29.
7. Likutei Sichos: vol. 27 p. 158-166.
8. Bereishis: 1: 3.
9. Shaar Hayichud VehaEmunah Chap. 1.
10. Bereishis 1: 26, 27.
11. Likutei Sichos ibid.
12. Likutei Sichos ibid.
13. Pirkei Avos 1:6.
14. Bamidbar Rabba 12:3.
15. Likutei Sichos ibid.
16. Talmud Bava Metzia 84a.
17. Sefer Hasichos 5703 p. 161.