(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...oheiv et habriyot, loving people...
(Leviticus 25:6) ...l'kha ul'av'd'kha ul'amatekha v'lis'khirkha ul'toshav'kha hagarim imakh; [The sabbatical shall apply] to you, and to your man-servant, and to your maid-servant, and to your hired hand, and to the resident alien who reside with you.
Sometimes people come to see me because they are thinking of entering rabbinical school. In addition to wanting to know my personal story (I think I became a rabbi accidentally, but everyone else saw it coming a long way off), they want to know what I think the qualifications are to be a good rabbi. I tell them that to be a rabbi you must do three things: love God, love Torah and love Jews. Of the three, I say, loving Jews is the hardest, because you have to love every individual Jew, not just The Jewish People. And (no offense, dear reader) Jews can be pretty aggravating.
In the previous column I wrote about love and what it means. I defined love as a willingness to put the needs of another ahead of your self-interest. When Avot commends loving people as a means of acquiring Torah, it is this love to which it refers. I take note that the advice I have been giving people about what the right stuff is for a rabbi to have is inadequate. It is not enough to love Jews. To be a teacher of Torah – that is, someone who has acquired enough to presume to interpret it for others – one must love people. Again, it is not "people" one must love, but persons, the individuals who come in every imaginable physical, emotional and psychological package.
We like to make much of how the obligations of Torah devolve only upon those who are part of the covenant. Unfortunately, some Jews therefore suggest that there is an elitism that flows from being part of that group chosen for responsibility. There is one ethic that applies to Jews and another ethic that applies to everyone else. It manifests itself in classical commentaries that describe people of other nations (=goyim) in most unflattering terms and permit crimes and manipulations against them otherwise prohibited between two Jewish parties. In contemporary times, we see the same attitude among those who teach that a Jewish soul is of higher value than a non-Jewish soul, or those who justify excesses by Jews that they protest when committed against Jews. Even in public policy advocacy, we sometimes hear civil liberties and funding priorities filtered through language that boils down to a trite cliché: is it good for the Jews?
Along comes the Torah – of all possible sources! – to remind us that the benefits and refinements that observing the mitzvot bring to us are to be shared with others. In concentric circles of relationship, each farther away from the core than the last, Torah includes self, servant, employee and resident stranger as equally deserving of the benefits of the land-sabbatical. Of course, the commandment to allow the land to lie fallow can only be observed by the land-holder; it would make sense to allow its wild fruits to remain in the control of the person actually upholding the mitzvah. After all, he or she likely has a family to feed and a missed season of cultivation that will put two years between regular harvests. It is not in the interest of the land-holder to share with an indebted servant, let alone a day-laborer or an outsider. But the mitzvah is not complete without that equality of opportunity. Without showing love of all persons, the Torah of this mitzvah goes unacquired.
You might understand this definition of love to be indiscriminately indulgent. Of course that cannot be possible; the individual who puts everyone else's smallest needs ahead of his or her own will rapidly bankrupt all material and spiritual resources. It is not a hierarchy of needs that is at the center of love; it is the balancing of others' needs and self-interest. Loving people does not mean being a fool or a patsy, nor does it mean you even have to like everyone. (Believe me, in my work I have encountered people I am sure Will Rogers never met.)
Instead, consider this notion. Every day you have the power to harm people who are inconvenient to you or whom you do not like. To acquire Torah, you may not. You may not harm them by your acts of commission, and you may not harm them by your acts of omission. Instead, even against your material or emotional interests, you must act to meet their needs as best you can, even the nameless wage-earner and the faceless immigrant so easy to ignore. If you love Torah, that is how you acquire it. And if you love God, then you must love God's image in everyone you meet.
How can you be oheiv et habriyot? Pay your honest fair share of taxes. Do not cut into a line. Support full funding of public education. Let the other person have the last loaf of marble rye. Be vigilant about the guarantees of civil rights. Et cetera. And not necessarily because you want to, but out of love for God's creations.
*Please note -- these two parshiyot are often combined in a non-leap year. Therefore, you will receive no column next week. Columns will resume with B'midbar on June 3.