(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including…ahuv, being loved...
(Leviticus 19:18) ...v'ahavta l'rei'a'kha kamokha; ...love your neighbor as yourself.
From Moses our Rabbi to our contemporary rabbis, one of the great Jewish fixations is criticizing the self-centered nature of the Jewish people. As a collective whole and individuals, our leaders constantly accuse us of investing too much of ourselves in this world and elevating our egos above our faithfulness.
Please allow for a dissenting voice.
I only know people who have lived in my time, so I have no counterpoint to Moses, Isaiah, Akiva or the Kotzker Rov. But our affliction as Jews is not that we think too much of ourselves. It is that we think too little of ourselves.
Look to the great social movements and causes of our times and you will find them filled with Jews, passionately pursuing their version of the right and the good. Human rights, politics, foreign affairs, disaster relief and the arts – and so many more – are filled with our activists and philanthropists who cannot do enough for others. But if the cause is close to home, that is, the self, the generosity comes to a screeching halt.
It is a curious combination of self-doubt and self-denigration that seems to drive our outward reach. On the one hand, as heir to a magnificent tradition that has witnessed every era in human history and remained intact, the individual Jew may wonder about how worthy he or she is to presume to be a "good example" of our People. On the other hand, centuries of abuse and derogation by others have led too many of us to consider Jewishness a liability to be overcome. I worry that we have even convinced a generation of young adults and children that Jewishness is an incidental burden.
Rabbi William Lebeau, who inspired me to write these columns, is the Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is among the gentlest and most even-tempered men I have ever met. Just about the only thing that gets a rise out of him is an old standard Jewish joke that he hears all the time from acquaintances of applicants to the Rabbinical School: What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?
With passion, Rabbi Lebeau will respond to that usually off-hand comment about how honorable and important the work of a rabbi is. If our goal is to be holy – the theme of this week's Torah portion – then what could be a more sacred use of time than teaching Torah to Jews and leading them in the ways of God! The lack of self-respect that this joke belies is hurtful enough; the laughs of recognition that it provokes are downright depressing.
We often hold up this mandate from Torah as the epitome of our tradition. In fact, Rabbi Akiva cites "Love your neighbor as yourself" as the single greatest principle in the Bible. Since we always feel compelled to parse even the most agreeable verses, much energy is spent on exactly who "your neighbor" actually is – the guy next door, your fellow Jew, any human being, or some subset of the three. Our activists and philanthropists can quote this verse and claim to put it into action.
But the more important question about this verse is its smallest word in English and an apparently superfluous word in Hebrew. If you must love your neighbor, then any other consideration should be irrelevant! But Torah recognizes an absolute truth: you cannot love your neighbor more than you love yourself. The limit of your love for others is the love you have for who you are in all your wholeness.
Why are so many Jews, liberal and conservative, out to change the world? How I wish that the answer to that question were a deep knowledge of the prophetic mandate to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. But I think the truth is more basic (and less educated): they have a desire to change themselves.
Being loved by others is almost always not in our hands. Being loved by ourselves is entirely within our power. Affirming my worth as a creation in God's image, as a child of Abraham, as a member of the covenant community and as a recipient of Torah erases all doubt and insecurity. But it is a very hard thing to accomplish. Yet, when I am ahuv, loved by myself, then and only then is the greatest single principle in the Bible, v'ahavta l'rei'a'kha kamokha, mine to acquire.
How does one begin to become ahuv? Start small and build. Find a mitzvah, an authentic Jewish practice, that has worth you acknowledge, but that you have been reluctant to do. Do it privately for a few weeks, and then take it public when you have integrated it into your life. It doesn't matter if it is something as familiar as lighting Shabbat candles (at first, light them just before dark; later, make a point of telling co-workers and friends you must be home in time to light candles) or something as unfamiliar as Talmud study (at first, learn for your own edification; later, share your acquired knowledge with good friends). It may be a simple adjustment in your life (no more cheeseburgers) or a quantum shift (regular mikvah visits). It may be a matter of ritual (refuse to wear mixed linen and wool) or of principle (give up the "nice Jewish boy" joke) or a combination of the two (no school or work on Jewish holidays). You'll feel better about yourself.