There’s an argument in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Ben Azzai, over which is the most basic principle of the Torah. Akiva says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He was a big fan of love. He LOVED love. He’s the guy who put the Song of Songs into the Bible, and his late-blooming romance with his wife Rachel is maybe the greatest Jewish love story of all time.
But Ben Azzai trumped him by saying, “No, even more important than ‘Love your Neighbor’ is the verse from Genesis that states, “On the day that God made human beings, they were made in the likeness of God, male and female God created them.”
Rabbi Arthur Green, whose new book “Radical Judaism” is must reading for any post-modern Jew – and we’ll be teaching it here this year – thinks Ben Azzai was on to something important. It’s not enough simply to love your neighbor. Anyone can love a neighbor. Azzai says that’s not enough! We have to love everyone. Not just the person who lives next door. Not just a fellow Jew. Every human being is in God’s image. True, some are harder to love than others. Some are nearly impossible.
And we all know who they are!
Some days you can love them, and some days you can’t. Even if you can’t love them, you have to treat them with dignity.
Well, it’s not really a command, as professor Reuven Kimelman has pointed out. Read properly, “V’ahavta is a response. An instinctive reaction projecting love out into the world. Projecting back what we have received.”
In both the morning and evening liturgies, the Sh’ma is immediately preceded by a prayer about love. In the morning, that prayer is Ahava Rabbah – “A Great Love,” a transcendent love, an UNCONDITIONAL love. The word for love, “Ahava,” appears in various forms no fewer than six times in that single prayer, including the first, middle and last words. Love, love, love, love, love, love. Six times! Like a mantra.
We are loved by an unconditional love – a boundless love, as we say at night, Ahavat Olam. When you’ve been loved in that way, when the world has loved you in that way, the only way to respond is to give love in return.
This is the journey we all need to take, the journey from receiving to giving, the journey to unconditional love. Let us make the passage from Ahava Rabba to Ahavat Olam, from a great love, to the greatest love of all, the love of all with whom we share this earth.
It is easy to be cynical. It is easy to be suspicious. It is easy to throw up our arms and disengage.
It is easy to hate. But IF WE HATE – THE HATERS WILL HAVE WON. They will have turned us into them.
No, they don’t all hate us. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter who hates us and why. All that matters is that we love. Why?
V’ahavta! We WILL love.