Since Ahavat Olam means an Eternal Love, or an Unconditional Love, in my first column as rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Olam, I’d like to welcome all of us to the Jewish New Year of 5783 by sharing a message of love.
The Torah provides us with two Mitzvot ha-Ahava, two “love commandments.” One is from the book of Leviticus: Vehaavta Lereacha Kamocha, meaning “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and the other, originating from the book of Deuteronomy, contains the words Jews often chant together at services, V’Ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha, “And you shall love Adonai your God …”
These two “love mitzvot” introduced the Jewish people to a unique form of love, a form that unites anyone open to such emotional generosity. One of the leaders of the Musar movement, Rabbi Simcha Zissel, explained that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is about “bearing the burden of the other.” Most of us already know the pleasure that comes from caring for another, even a stranger. Sometimes caring for a stranger can be easier than caring for our own family.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of working in different congregational settings, in different capacities, and within different denominations. Even though I valued each experience and grew as a cantor, and then a rabbi, I’ve been feeling that Jewish practice has been becoming distant from sentiments represented by the two love mitzvot. Placing Jews into categories; a Reform Jew, a Conservative Jew, and an Orthodox Jew, divides us. I never felt comfortable with classifying streams in Judaism. And so I created an environment that practices one Judaism; one that transcends any single denomination, one that unites people with different identities and different backgrounds, one that pushes us to search and discover together where we are spiritually in our individual and shared journeys, and one in which we feel comfortable. After all, we share one God and one Torah.
The Talmud was very clear when it stated that Elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayim, “that these but also those are the words of the living God.” We are called to respect other opinions; there is not usually only one correct opinion. The love mitzvot, which is part of our history, of our tradition, and of our ancestral DNA, remind us of just that. The Jewish people are a family, and like in a traditional family, we don’t have the option to choose members. Therefore, we could probably all do a little bit more toward establishing a closer relationship with the members we have. We may not agree all the time, and quite often we don’t and won’t. Nonetheless, we can still express love and respect to our siblings in ways that are authentic, despite our differences.
The ancient rabbis put it perfectly when they declared that Kol Israel arevim ze baze, “that all of Israel is responsible for one another.” Listening to different opinions and perspectives make us a better, stronger, and altogether healthier community.
In Judaism, the values of Ahava v’tzedek, “love and justice,” are bound together. Love that does not contain justice can lead to an unhealthy rivalry, division, and eventually, to hatred. Seven weeks prior to Rosh Hashanah, Jews around the world mourned on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a day on which many tragic events occurred in Jewish history starting with the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and less than 700 years later, the destruction of the Second Temple on that same date. In contrast, a few days later, on Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, we celebrate Chag Ha-Ahavah, The Love Holiday, also known as the Jewish Valentine’s Day, or, as my daughter used to say, Valenstein’s Day.
We have been taught that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, “baseless hatred.” If Sinat Chinam has the ability to destroy our most precious, beautiful, meaningful, well-structured building, I can only imagine what gorgeous architectural and social structures Ahavat Olam – an unconditional love and unity – can build when we keep Sinat Chinam in check.
I’m excited to see what our entire Jewish community, in the spirit of these two love mitzvot and our natural inclination to care for our fellow people, will build together beginning this Rosh Hashanah 5783.
Shanah Tovah umetooka, b’riut v’harbe AHAVAH! k’tivah, v’chatimah tovah, wishing you all a happy and a sweet New Year, filled with good health and lots of love, and may we be written and sealed for another great year.
Rabbi Idan Irelander is the founding rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover.