As the holiday of Pesach fades into the past, we presently find ourselves in the time period of Sefiras Ha’Omer. These seven weeks are a time of national excitement as Bnei Yisrael count the days leading up to the Receiving of the Torah. However, be that as it may, the word “sefirah” has over time come to connote aveilus as well. This is because Chazal decreed a month-long period of grieving during this time when R’ Akiva’s 2,4000 students died in a plague. This mourning entails, inter alia, a prohibition to shave, take a haircut, get married, or listen to music. Thus, at the same time that we anticipate the upcoming celebration of the Torah, we also lament the tremendous loss we suffered when just about an entire generation of outstanding Torah scholars was lost from our people.
Consistent with the Torah viewpoint that nothing occurs in this world without first being justly decreed on High, the Talmud famously explains what the grave transgression of these students was to have warranted such a harsh punishment. “Rabi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students… and they all died within one time period because they did not show due respect for one another.” Although nobody would ever attribute grossly inappropriate interpersonal conduct to the holy students of R’ Akiva, our Sages were nevertheless able to discern a small degree of civil malfeasance within these holy men which, by Divine decree, rendered them unfit to be the next link in the chain of our mesorah.
It seems, then, that this month is one in which we should be working on the 219th mitzvah – V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha – to love your friend as yourself. However, to be honest, this is quite a baffling one. How can the Torah command you to love somebody? One can easily hear the claim “If I already love him then the mitzvah is superfluous, and if I don’t love him – I can’t do anything about it! I can’t make myself love him!” Love is an emotion, not an action. Ostensibly, you either feel it or you don’t. So what is the meaning behind this puzzling mitzvah? It is axiomatic that if Hashem commands us to do something, there must be a way to go about doing it. Therefore, I believe that there must be a formula which one can follow to engender within himself a love of others. Come, we have a way to go.
As Voltaire famously said, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” If we are to discover a scientific formula for love, we must first define love. Ask somebody if he loves his wife. If he answers in the affirmative, ask him why. Most likely, he will begin to list for you all the good qualities that his wife has. She’s so dedicated; she’s so caring, she works so hard for our family, etc. What would happen then, if you asked this loving individual, “But doesn’t she have bad qualities A, B, and C?” If he is honest, he will be forced to concede that you are correct. Thus we see that in spite of his wife’s negative qualities, he still loves her. Now ask somebody why he hates his sworn enemy. Chances are he will rattle off a whole slew of negative qualities from which this individual suffers. “He’s stingy, he’s grouchy, he has a temper, etc.” Yet, if you ask this hateful man if his nemesis has good qualities A, B, and C, once again he will be compelled by honesty to admit that you are correct. Remarkably, it seems that someone can have two relationships, both consisting of an awareness of his fellow’s positive and negative qualities, and yet one is a hateful relationship and one is loving. If this is so, then from where does the hate or love originate?