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Friday, 1 May, 2015 - 11:45 am

Once, a salesman approached a home and heard a big commotion inside. When the door was opened by a man, the salesman asked if he could speak to the master of the home.

"Well, sir," came the reply, "you will have to wait for that; we’re in middle of deciding who the master is right now!”

The past week has been one of pain in light of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Thousands have lost their lives. Many are still missing; buildings and homes are ruined.

The Chabad House of Nepal has become a refuge for hundreds of Israeli backpackers and Chabad is reaching out to the broader community with humanitarian aid. They are the only Jewish presence in Nepal.

Thousands of tourists from all over the world are stranded in Nepal. Tourists from the USA, Europe, and elsewhere, were shocked to see an Israeli plane arrive just to bring home its citizens. They were the only country to do so.

The love that the Jewish people have for each other is beyond what any other nation can even imagine. That is the exact idea expressed in this week’s Torah portion Kedoshim: “Love your fellow as yourself.” We are responsible for each other.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand disciples, but because they “did not respect each other,” a plague broke out in which they all perished. They ceased dying on Lag Ba’Omer; hence, we celebrate this day.

This seems very strange. The most famous of Rabbi Akiva’s teachings is, “‘Love your fellow as yourself’—this is a fundamental principle in Torah.” One would therefore expect that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples would be the foremost exemplars of this principle! How was it that they, of all people, were so profoundly deficient in this area?

There are people you like, but you don’t love; there are people you love but you may not like, and there are those you neither love nor like.

You love your parents. You love your brothers and sisters. You love your children. But you don’t necessarily always like them…. Sometimes you love your husband, or your wife, but you have a hard time liking him or her.

What is the difference between “liking” and “loving”?

Love comes from our sameness; liking comes from our differences. Loving someone underscores your shared identity, while liking another person emphasizes your distinctiveness from each other.

I love you because you and I, in a very deep place, are one. You and your parents, you and your siblings, are connected in a very real way. There is love there, even if it is repressed and complicated.

When I like you it means that I appreciate your unique personality and character traits. I like you not because we are one, but because we are different, and your individuality enriches and enhances my life.

Love we take for granted. It comes with the territory. Liking, on the other hand, represents the fact that I do not take you for granted; I appreciate your contribution to me which is not part of my own birthright or chemistry.  This distinction is true also concerning the Jewish people.

Someone once asked me: What is the difference between an anti-Semite and a Jew; after all, they both don’t like Jews….

If you ask an anti-Semite his opinion of the Jewish people, he will tell you that they are a horrible people, aggressive occupiers, and stingy billionaires. They run the country and they are guilty for Global Warming, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and of course all the oil leaks in the world.

Why, then, does he use Dr. Goldberg as his cardiologist, Klein as his attorney, Berkowitz as his accountant, Weiss as his travel agent, and Cohen as his golf partner? He will explain to you that “these individual Jews are different; they are honest and wonderful people. I don’t like Jews in general, but these guys are different…”

Now, ask a Jew for his opinion of the Jewish people. He will say: Ah! I love the Jewish people. There are no people like my people!

“Tell me about the Jew sitting to your right in shul,” you ask.

“Ah, He? He is a thief!”

“And how about the guy to your left?”

“He is a real scoundrel, and a liar, too.”

“How about your brother-in-law?” “He is a low life.”

So you see, the Jew loves the Jewish people, but he has a hard time liking them; the anti-Semite may like many Jews, but he has no love for our people.

We Jews are one family. We fight like family, we argue like family, but we also hate and love each other like family. Even a Jew that is completely different than I am, I still love, because deep down, we are truly one. We are united by fate, history, destiny, biology, and our spiritual core. All of the Jewish people are essentially one large soul divided into 15 million bodies. As Jackie Mason puts it: “If two Jews meet and within three minutes they do not establish a familial connection, one of them is certainly not Jewish.”

Dr. Ze’ev Maghen, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Bar-Ilan and Hebrew Universities, tells the following tale:

My grandfather on my father’s side was an Iranian Jew from a little town called Kashan. He told me this story. Once, in the time of his grandfather’s grandfather, already in the 19th century, a Jewish merchant from Kashan allegedly overcharged a local Muslim man of the cloth. This complacent clergyman metamorphosed overnight into the Mad Mullah, and swore upon the Koran that he’d have his revenge, and then some. He quickly assembled and whipped into a religious frenzy all the turbaned ayatollahs in the entire province, and together they proceeded to the palace of the regional governor. They managed to prevail upon him to issue an official edict requiring the conversion of every single Jewish man, woman and child to Islam by such-and-such a date, upon pain of death. Well, the appointed deadline was fast approaching, and the Jewish community of Kashan was in a tizzy.

What to do? With two weeks left, the various elders finally buried their long-standing differences and held a solemn conference at the house of Kashan’s chief rabbi. Prayers were offered, psalms were intoned. But nobody really had any suggestions worth considering. It was agreed by all present that a delegation should be sent to the governor, but no one could figure out what exactly they should say to him. The meeting was about to disperse, when the rabbi’s wife—who had, of course, been bringing in round after round of sweet, dared to address the company she had been so dutifully serving. “You leave it to me and my sisters,” she enjoined confidently. “Just come back when it’s time to go to the governor.” 

Iranian families are big, and soon the sound of looms weaving hard could be heard not just at the rabbi’s house, but at most of the houses surrounding it. The seven sisters worked day and night, scarcely pausing to rest, and when the elders returned one week later—on their way to petition the governor to rescind the evil decree—the Rabbi’s wife laid two enormous, rolled-up Persian rugs, made of the finest Kashan silk, at their feet. “Now, when you are received an audience with the governor, here’s what you will do…” she explained.

A few days later the delegation, weary from their long trek through the desert on camels and donkeys, stood trembling in His Excellency’s presence. “You have wasted your time in traveling all the way here,” he chided them, right off the bat. “I will not change my mind. You will all be good Muslims in time for next Friday’s public prayers in the mosque. Nevertheless, since you have come all this way, I will go through the motions of entertaining your petition. What have you to say?”

The elders approached the governor’s divan and bowed low. “Your Honor, before presenting our petition, we have brought you a gift, as a token of our gratitude for these many long years during which we have been privileged to live quietly and obediently under your powerful protection.”

The governor liked gifts. Especially the kind one received from large delegations of rich and frightened Jewish merchants. “Enough of your pathetic truckling,” said he. “What have you brought me?” The elders immediately had both of the carpets brought in and unfurled at the ruler’s feet. “On behalf of the Jewish community of Kashan province, we beg leave to place these two humble offerings before His Excellency, and request that He choose one of them as our tribute.”

Both carpets were broad, plush, tightly woven, and made out of the most exquisite material. The first one was covered with colorful curving calyxes and designs of gold and green and turquoise, like an ornamental garnish surrounding and supporting a magnificent main course. The vast center was an alternately placid and surging sea of breathtaking royal blue, periodically punctuated by a cornucopia of gemlike little islands of the most elegant design, each embroidered in a different form and color and bordered by hundreds of finely interlaced, snow-white cilia swimming softly in agile and decorous understatement.

The second carpet was … red.

That’s all it was. The whole rug was just one sprawling, solid red mat, from end to end.

What?” cried the governor. “How dare you! I should have you all decapitated for such insolence! Do you take me for a fool? What kind of choice is this? Who in his right mind would not choose the first carpet—and who in full possession of his faculties would choose the second?”

The hoariest head of the Jewish delegation stepped forward from amongst his peers and looked the governor straight in the eye. “The silk rugs, my liege, are the territories under your benevolent sway—Kashan province. Today that province is filled with peoples of every imaginable culture and creed—Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, Azeris, Mandeans, Turkmen, Jews—and in this way it resembles the first carpet. Would Your Excellency, then, exchange the first carpet for the second?”

This is why the plague striking the students of Rabbi Akiva happened during the days of counting the Omer. From the very mitzvah of counting the omer, they should have learned that their approach was flawed and that love must be joined with respect. On Lag Ba’Omer, when two thirds of the counting is done, and we embark on the final third, the energy of Shavuot begins to be felt, an energy embracing not only the collective but also the individual. It was then that the students of Rabbi Akiva “got it,” and they learned to like the people they loved.

On Lag Ba’Omer it is customary for Jewish children to celebrate the unity of the Jewish people. The celebration brings together a nation as one, yet each individual marches with his or her unique walk, rhythm, and beat.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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