Rabbi Yehoshua Schwab shared with me recently something that his father Rabbi Mordechai Schwab heard from his great teacher Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz. (Obviously, Reb Baruch Ber’s exact words, except for his conclusion have been lost in transmission.)
One day Reb Boruch Ber posed the question: On what merit can I hope to claim a place in Olam Haba? Will it be my chiddushei Torah? Will Bircas Shmuel be my entry card?
No, he concluded. Of what possible merit will my chiddushei Torah be found in the presence of the Tannaim and Amoraim, Rishonim and Achronim? I would be foolish to think that they merit me a place in the World to Come.
Perhaps I can claim entry based on my merirus nefesh for Torah and mitzvos. No, that too is ridiculous. Of what merit is my mesirus nefesh, such as it is, compared to that the tens of thousands of Jews who have given their lives al Kiddush Hashem rather than deny Hashem? What could I say for myself in the place of all the martyrs who were burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition or slaughtered during the Crusades?
Finally, Reb Boruch Ber relaxed. He had found something about himself sufficient to merit a place in Olam Haba. What was that? “I loved every Jew, just as he was.”
Reb Yehoshua then expanded on the nature of Reb Boruch Ber’s ahavas Yisrael with another story that he heard from his father. One day, Reb Boruch Ber entered his house and found a repairman at work. The man was clean-shaven, which in those days was a pretty sure sign that he was not Jewish. So Reb Boruch Ber addressed him in Russian. The man replied in Yiddish.
As soon as he realized that the repairman was Jewish, Reb Boruch Ber was beside himself that he had addressed a Jew – any Jew – as he would have addressed a gentile. Though there had been nothing belittling or condescending about his original greeting, Reb Boruch Ber felt the need to gain the repairman’s forgiveness.
First, he asked the man if he could get him something to drink. Next he offered to prepare him breakfast. Merely speaking to a Jew as if he were a gentile – politely but without any particular warmth or feeling of closeness – was in Reb Boruch Ber’s eyes a horrible offense that must be appeased.
I RECENTLY ASKED A GADOL what is the yesod of ahavas Yisrael (the love of our fellow Jews). He replied: To see every Jew as a neshama not as a guf, and to focus on the neshama. In other words, our special love for a fellow Jew derives from a recognition of his or her greater spiritual potential.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto describes in Derech Hashem how after the Sin of Adam HaRishon mankind still had the opportunity to reach again the level of Adam HaRishon. But with the Generation of Dispersion that opportunity was severed forever. Thereafter that potential continues to exist only with respect to Avraham Avinu and his descendants and those who join themselves to the covenant of Avraham as righteous converts.
Not only does that potential exist, but at one climatic moment in human history at Har Sinai, the entire nation once again achieved that level, however briefly.
WITH THE YESOD in mind that ahavas Yisrael depends on relating to our fellow Jews as neshamos, we can begin to understand why Reb Boruch Ber was able to love every Jew just as he was at that moment. It also explains why there are so many inspiring stories of ahavas Yisrael involving gedolei Yisrael, while most of us struggle to relate to our fellow Jews with love and are easily put off by the slightest difference in appearance or approach.
The former live at the level of neshama while we live to a much greater degree in the physical world. The more a person is aware of the tzelem Elokim within himself the more he will be ever conscious of the tzelem Elokim of others. The more intense one’s relationship with Hashem the easier it will be to relate to others primarily as neshamos, for his world is a world of ruchnios.
Nowhere is that connection seen more clearly than in the great figures of the kiruv movement. Success in kiruv depends on seeing a Jew not as he is now, but in terms of what he can be by focusing upon him as a neshama with unlimited potential.
All of those who knew Rabbi Meir Schuster well, for instance, almost invariably begin their descriptions of him with his davening or the way he said bircas hamazon– the intensity, each word fairly shouted, the physical expression of the desire to reach higher and to come closer to Hashem. For thirty years, his sense of Divine mission brought him to the Kosel every morning for the haneitz minyan and made him a seemingly omnipresent figure in the streets of Jerusalem in search of Jewish souls.
Asked why she would have followed a complete stranger, much less a behatted, dark-suited rabbi of few words to the Heritage House hostel, a young woman could think of no answer other than: “Because he cared so much. It was so important to him that I not stay at a non-Jewish hostel.”
Few could instill G-d-consciousness like Rabbi Rabbi Noach Weinberg. “I listened to him teach Ahava Rabbah, and I felt like Hashem loves me in a way that I never felt before,” one talmid chacham told me. Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein, a product of the most intense mainstream yeshivos, credits Reb Noach with qualitatively changing his davening: “He taught me that it is possible to daven every single Shemoneh Esrai erlich” – i.e., with real feeling.
Though he himself wore the formal dress of a rosh yeshiva, Reb Noach had no trouble seeing the neshama of any Jew he met, not matter how hirsute or disheveled. One of his talmdim was walking through Damascus Gate one day (long before that would have been suicidal behavior) and he saw a young Jew who looked so out of it that he could not help thinking to himself, “Even Reb Noach could not reach this fellow.”
Yet in the time that talmid was at his Arab tailor, that young Jew somehow wandered into Aish HaTorah and found himself in Reb Noach’s office, where he remained speaking to Reb Noach for several hours. From there he went to the beis medrash and started learning Torah. Today he not only learns Torah but teaches others. And only because Reb Noach could always see the neshama where others could not get beyond the externals.
We often speak of the pintele Yid – the tiny, unextinguished spark of Jewishness that remains in every Jew. But instead of something tiny, what we are really referring to his the greatness of the soul waiting to be filled.
Jonathan Rosenblum (Mishpacha Magazine)