Seeking out the best in each other
“Speak to the entire congregation of Bnei Yisroel and tell them, ‘You shall be holy’…”
Rashi says: “We learn from this verse that this parsha was said at a public gathering, because much of the Torah’s essence depends on it.” What is the significance of Rashi’s comment? The entire Torah was taught in public, so how was this parsha different?
The Gemara says (Berachos 6b) that when Hashem comes to a shul to listen to the prayers and sees that less than ten people are present, he becomes angry, so to speak, and says, “Why have I come here when there is no man?” What if nine people are present? Why does Hashem still say there is “no man?” To understand this, we must first appreciate the significance of a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews together.
The Maor V’Shamesh (Parshas Masei) describes the “Holy Chevra,” the group of close disciples of the saintly Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizensk. He writes that every member of this group constantly focused on the special attributes of his friends and aspired to reach similar heights in that specific area of character development. They all thought the world of each other, as their holy Rebbe wrote in his preparatory prayer: “May each person see the good in our friends, and not their shortcomings.”
This could be the reason why the required quorum for a minyan is ten people. We know that there are ten special attributes in the world. When a group of ten people gather for prayer, they each compliment each other with their individual strengths, so that all necessary attributes are present. These people learn from each other the special strengths they should acquire, and develop the attributes and special character traits they have not yet acquired within themselves by looking at their friends.
It is very important to learn positive traits from other people, but at the same time, one must be careful not to learn of their shortcomings. The Rebbe once said that during World War I, many Polish Jews escaped to Germany or Prague. The people would say in jest that perhaps due to the volume of Polish refugees in those cities, the Jewish communities in both locales would learn from each other’s strengths; the German Jews would become more passionate for Yiddishkeit and the Polish Jews would become more punctual and meticulous. Instead, they said, they each learned from the other’s shortcomings; the Polish Jews lost their passion while the German Jews became less meticulous…
One must be careful to learn only from the positive traits of the other person. This is why Rebbe Elimelech composed the special tefillah mentioned above, to be said before davening, so that when we gather for prayer we should not be distracted by the shortcomings of the other people in shul. If the person in front of you is talking, the person behind you davens at a quicker pace, the person to your left runs out of shul before Aleinu, and you learn from all of them, you won’t be davening much… Instead, learn from their strengths – the person who never talks during davening, or always enunciates each word carefully.
This is why Rashi comments that the parsha of ‘You shall be holy’ was said at a public gathering “because much of the Torah’s essence depends on it.” the word for “essence” used in the verse is gufei Torah, literally “body of the Torah.” Rashi hints at an important lesson: We are a community; many gufim – bodies together. This is why the Torah admonished us all together at a public gathering to be holy, to learn only from each other’s strengths and positive traits.
The Gemara says (Yevamos 62b) that in the days between Pesach and Shevuos the disciples of Rebbe Akiva perished in a deadly epidemic, because “they did not accord each other proper respect.” If they would have respected each other as befits people of their high stature, they would have learned from each other’s strengths. They would have learned from each other’s knowledge and covered the entire Torah. After his twenty-four thousand disciples perished, Rebbe Akiva went to the south of Eretz Yisroel where he taught five new disciples, who did learn from each other and complimented each other’s strengths.
Similarly, the Mishna (Avos 2:8) tells us that Rabban Yochanan had five disciples. He certainly had many more, but for these disciples “he constantly counted their praise,” so that people should learn from their strengths.
“And you shall love your friend as yourself, I am Hashem.”
What is the connection of the words “I am Hashem” to the beginning of the verse? All mitzvahs are commanded by Hashem, so why is it mentioned here specifically?
We can understand this by looking at the reason why a person could be lacking in this mitzvah. Why does a person lack ahavas Yisroel, love for his fellow Jews? This is because he thinks of his own honor. If he would have sought the honor of Hashem, he would automatically love every Jew, because they all have a spark of Hashem within themselves. Rebbe Nachman taught us “to diminish our own honor and increase Hashem’s honor.” This is a balancing act – one cannot honor himself and Hashem at the same time; it’s an either/or situation.
The above commandment and the commandment “and you shall love Hashem your G-d” have the same numerical value, to teach us that loving a fellow Jew is a condition to the commandment of loving Hashem.
Of course, the admonition to “diminish one’s own honor” does not mean that a person should disregard his intrinsic value. After all, he too has a spark of Hashem in himself! Indeed, he should only take personal honor for being made in Hashem’s image, for having a Divine soul, and not for any material or physical abilities.
In the correspondences between tzaddikim, they wrote the loftiest titles on each other, and nobody protested against this practice. Why did these tzaddikim tolerate when their friends gave them such honorary titles? The answer is simple. These great men knew their true inner value. They did not accept any honors for their accomplishments, but they did accept honors for their neshamos.
May Hashem help us fulfill this lofty mitzvah of loving our fellow Jews, in every sense of the commandment.