By Rabbi Avi Shafran
I used to pass the fellow each morning as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passers-by, one of several poster-board-and-marker signs he had made. One read “I love you!” Another: “You are wonderful!” The words of the others escape me, but the sentiments were similar.
He was well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he displayed his expressions of ardor to all of us rushing to our offices. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but something inchoate about it bothered me.
Then one day I put my finger on it: It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but such love is not possible. Gushing good will at everyone is offering it to no one at all.
By definition, ahava exists within boundaries; our empathy for those closest to us is of a different nature than our concern for others with whom we don’t share our personal lives.
Each of us lives, one might say, at the center of a series of concentric circles, the closest one encompassing our immediate family members. The next circle out might include our “social circle”; the one beyond that, all Yidden. At a distance removed from that is a larger circle of human beings with similar values to ours. And further out still, the circle containing the rest of humanity.
It is perfectly proper – in fact, necessary – that we all feel, and demonstrate, our deepest ahava for the circle closest to us. And greater concern for the next circle out than for those beyond it.
Even the non-Jewish world recognizes this. It is perfectly acceptable that ethnic or religious groups naturally show special concern for other members of their own groups; no one is – or, at least, should be – scandalized to see Catholics or Muslims or Hispanics or Native Americans establish charities aimed at helping only their fellows or show particular concern for them.
Yet some Jews, tragically, seem embarrassed at the idea of Jews acting with special alacrity on behalf of fellow Yidden.
They forget how ahava works, not to mention that the Torah expressly mandates that the bond between Jews be closer than the connection between neighbors or people of the same ethnicity – that the circle of fellow members of Klal Yisroel be but a hairsbreadth or two distant from the one holding our parents, children and siblings.
Particularly intriguing, and to some people counterintuitive, is that precisely the intense empathy we feel and express for our “inner circles” enables us to feel genuine concern for those in more distant ones. People who focus their deepest feelings on their immediate families and friends are those most likely to truly care about their fellow citizens or wider circles still. Exercising the “empathy muscle,” we might hypothesize, provides the ability to feel – less intensely, to be sure, but more genuinely – concern for people who do not share our most essential identity.
There were grumblings about how some Jews reacted to the government’s treatment of Sholom Rubashkin, the one-time CEO of the country’s largest kosher meat producer, how they noted the unfair treatment he endured, and how they sought to help him defend himself against the onslaught of legal charges that the state of Iowa and federal authorities leveled against him. And it bothers the grumblers that many of us found the 27-year sentence a federal court in Iowa dumped on him to be beyond all reason and sanity for a first-time white-collar violator of banking laws.
Would we, they ask, publicly protest if a Lutheran or Methodist or Muslim were one day to receive a similarly egregious verdict for similar crimes?
Likely not, it is true. But many of us, I think, would feel a pang of empathy and outrage where we may not have felt one before.
And it will be because of the emotions we felt, and feel, about the unwarranted ordeal of a fellow Jew, a relative of ours. Of all Yidden.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]