When I was a university student in Munich, I had a particular fascination with Goethe's Faust. I saw in Faust someone who epitomized the human condition. Unwilling to accept the limitations created by our finite nature, Faust revealed an underlying desire to be G-d. In the end, this desire was no more attainable for Faust, than it is for any of us. It is a desire, however, that can create noble aspirations. For one, frustration with human limitations can drive us to seek entrance to the spiritual afterlife that we call ‘the world to come’.
While Judaism promises eternal life if we live our human lives as required, the connection between the two is not always clear. Why should any physical action in this world have any impact on the future of my soul? Some might be satisfied with the notion that there need not be any intrinsic connection between what we are asked to do in the here and now and its ultimate reward. Such a position notwithstanding, we may be able to find a connection between this world and the next in a very unexpected realm, the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael.
In the Sifra, we find a disagreement between Ben Azzai and R. Akiva as to the importance of what they deem to be the general principle of V'Ahavta L'Reyacha Kamocha. Even according to the more moderate approach of R. Akiva, we are told that this is a major principle in the Torah, which should require extraordinary scrutiny. It may then seem ironic that this was in direct contradiction to the behavior of his students.
Most readers are familiar with the Talmud's account of the plague that killed all of R. Akiva's early students (Yevamot 62). They are accused of not properly honoring one other. At first glance, one is surprised to learn about the base shortcomings of these otherwise great men. In grappling with this problem, one should realize that R. Akiva's above principle is far from intuitive.1 What is it about the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael that makes it a major principle? Such lack of intuitive clarity can help to account for the mistake of R. Akiva's students.
Intuitively, the religious quest of mankind has very little to do with one's fellow man. In searching for the eternal, a man tries to commune with G-d in a variety of different ways. He attempts to communicate with G-d, tries to make himself more worthy of such communication by elevating his own thought and action, contemplates the nature of G-d, etc. The obligation to love one's fellow moves from the irrelevant to the counterproductive when one considers the nature of most people. Since most people are more concerned with earthly matters, such people distract the truly religious from matters sublime. As such, the religiously minded individual will see most people as obstacles in his search for communion with G-d. In fact, many of the gentile spiritual masters try to elevate themselves by shunning community. One immediately thinks of gurus meditating on isolated mountain tops. This is the logic behind the monastic tradition common to many faiths.
In order to understand R. Akiva's teaching about the centrality of Ahavat Yisrael, it is productive to briefly focus on the nature of transcendence. Transcending ourselves means to move beyond our own limits (i.e. experiencing reality from a vantage point beyond self). So long as we limit our experience to ourselves, we are stuck within the spatial and temporal limits of our physical existence. To commune with G-d, we have to see the world, including ourselves, from His perspective. Thus, transcendence is a critical step in engaging an unlimited G-d.
Transcending self is no simple matter. It is the nature of a child to focus on its needs alone. Like any other habit, this self-centeredness is something that one must work upon, in order to change. And, as with most such transformations, the Torah gives us a practical program on how to train ourselves to overcome our limits. We will now turn our attention to investigating this program.
R. Abraham ibn Ezra provides us with a valuable insight in understanding how we can come to transcendence. In the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:3), he explains the order of mitzvot presented (i.e. fearing mother, fearing father, observing Shabbat) as a chronological one in the life of a child. One's first sense of concern for another is toward one's first caretaker and only thereafter toward the father. The human creators of the child then inculcate a sense of the ultimate Other. They do this through the mitzvah of remembering our prime Creator by teaching observance of Shabbat. Thus, we see a natural progression outwards: by first putting parents before self we are able to reach a mind frame that allows one to put the more abstract G-d before self.
Pushing ourselves out in the practical world goes beyond parents. G-d creates all people in such a way that they need to combine in marriage. In halacha, this is expressed as an obligation to procreate. Beyond family, halacha forces one into community - one must endeavor to pray in a minyan and seek out functionaries for various legal and ritual situations. Presumably, such an orientation is not meant to complicate our spiritual journey, but rather to facilitate it.
We are given the ability to learn empathy step by step. Starting with the person who does the most for us as children, the Torah reinforces the natural propensity to want to do good to those who do good to us by commanding it. This forces us to start thinking about how our actions are viewed by other people. In turn, we eventually start trying to do this with all Jews. Loving fellow Jew is about looking at the world from the perspective of the other. Thus, Ahavat Yisrael is transcendence of a practical kind.
We thus prepare our souls for the next world by what we do in this world. According to this, people are only able to transcend themselves after death, if they can do so in a practical and tangible fashion in their earthly lives. R. Akiva was known for a mystical orientation - this may have been the major thrust of his teaching about Ahavat Yisrael.
Rashi (Shemot 19:2) has made famous the Mekhilta that tells us about the Jewish people being like one person with one heart when they encamped at Sinai. There are other occasions when we might have expected similar levels of national unity. The Mekhilta, however, points out that this is the only place where the Jews exhibited such a high level of unity. Rather than telling us the state of the Jews at the time of the giving of the Torah, Chazal may be telling us why the Torah was given at that specific point in time. In other words, until the Jews could acquire a sense of complete unity, they could not receive the Torah. On some level, practical transcendence, attained through Ahavat Yisrael, is upon which the ultimate success of the Torah's plan rests. After all, the Torah's ultimate goal, like that of all human spirituality, is communion with G-d. Here again, Judaism is stressing its unique thesis that ultimate transcendence will only be attained by someone who has mastered practical human transcendence.
Perhaps this idea will also explain the timing of the plague that killed the students of R. Akiva.2 Again, G-d could have chosen any time for such clear divine intervention. The period of sefirat haOmer had traditionally been a happy time - if anything, one would have expected the divine retribution to occur in a period of time usually associated with catastrophe. Our new understanding of Kabbalat haTorah, however, can provide an insight into the timing of the above plague as well. When the leaders of the Jewish people are focused on everything except Ahavat Yisrael, the Torah is undermined. At that point, reenacting Kabbalat haTorah becomes an empty farce.
We know from other statements of Chazal that Ahavat Yisrael was an area of weakness that had led to the destruction of the SecondTemple. R. Akiva taught his students not much later than this event. Apparently, the time of year was meant to convey that Ahavat Yisrael is not just one of the mitzvot. In fact, G-d was telling the Jewish people that, without Ahavat Yisrael, there is no Torah.3
One does not know when R. Akiva first taught his idea about loving one's fellow Jew. If he taught it after the death of his students, there could be no greater lesson learned from their fate. The price paid was certainly mind boggling. However, if Torah is the reason for G-d's creating the world (see Rashi Bereshit 1:1), then nothing in the world stands before the Torah's true implementation. That means that nothing stands before Ahavat Yisrael. If we sometimes wonder why the Jews have suffered so much in this exile, that was/is caused by hating one another, the fate of R. Akiva's students should remind us of the high stakes involved in loving one another before we can truly commune with G-d.
1. When we consider it, Jewish law as a whole is far from intuitive. While many of the large principles are clearly ennobling, the detailed nature of Jewish ritual has baffled many religious thinkers. This could, in fact, be to what the agadata in Shabbat 88b-89a is referring when it has the angels opposing the giving of the Torah to mortal man. Moshe answers by pointing out its very practical contents. R. Yehoshua ben Levi, the author of the agadata, may well be illustrating the surprising nature of the Torah. Moshe is here explaining how the Torah only teaches the practical actions required to properly move our very limited human nature to the point where we can engage the purely spiritual contents that the angels had expected to be in the Torah.
2. The Maharal in the Chidushei Agadot on Yevamot (ibid.) also raises this issue but provides different answers.
3. Another allusion to this idea is the fact that the Talmud refers to the 24,000 students as 12,000 pairs. Their proper identity was as part of a larger entity (i.e. the pair), thereby preparing their personal spiritual road as well as providing an example for the rest of the Jewish people. (R. Aryeh Levin embodied such an idea when he reportedly told a doctor that his wife's foot was hurting "us.")