…and you should love your neighbor as yourself… (Vayikra 19:18)
This one line here is the Great -General Principle in the Torah, according to Rabbi Akiva. It looks simple enough and is easily understandable at first glance, and it really is. We could easily summarize it as, “love other people!” That works for me! However, the more we look at and study these words the more we can discover depth. As time passes I find more and different ways to appreciate the profundity of this universal maxim and holy mandate of the Torah.
I find myself wondering these days what was it that animated and motivated Rabbi Zacharia Wallerstein zl. to give so much of himself to so many people. Yes, it was a shocking and terrible loss we all sustained this past week and it leaves me reflecting on my good friend and colleague. Where did all that passion flow from, from where did the fuel come from that sustained the burn in his belly to help whoever he could and whoever they were?!
A Mishne in the 1st Perek of Pirke’ Avos jumped into my mind. This may be the jumpstart for a discussion, a beginning to an answer. “He (Hillel) used to say, ‘If I am not for me who will be for me!? If I am only for me then what am I!? And if not now then when!?’” Let us now examine these statements and their sequence.
“If am I am not for me, who will be for me!?” This describes a classic identity crisis. Everybody goes through this to a greater and lesser extent. We cannot avoid the challenge. If we were to just assume the identity that the local environs and culture shape us into then we are essentially prisoners of public opinion and the expectation of others.
Even if everyone is well meaning and they have our best interest in mind, we have to decide if this is exactly what I want to be. It must be affirmed internally and made to be in concert with our truest selves. We all strive for a feeling of congruency, where the internal aligns with what we project to the world and the external expresses authentically and pleasantly the best of who we really are. It’s a job for a poet to find his voice and for any of us to find the Torah true version of ourselves.
When someone does, through hard work and by overcoming challenges, both internal and external, they have not only found the key to their own heart, they have discovered something even more valuable, something that could not have been arrived at without this struggle.
They have effectively manufactured the master key to helping hundreds and thousands of others with their individual difficulties.
Now what if you had in your possession the key to open the medicine cabinet that ease the pain and cure the ills of others, would you hold it back!? Of course not! That would be cruel! You would want to open that treasure of medicine for as many people as possible.
Now the second part of the Mishne comes into focus, “If I am only for me then what am I!? If I am developing myself for me alone, if I keep this key only for myself, then it is no longer an identity crisis, “what am I”, it becomes a humanity crisis!
The third part of the Mishne can now be understood in this light. If one has that master key in his possession and he realizes that he can help many-many people then it becomes an emergency of time.
The clock is ticking. The expiration date of a person’s life is unknown and one would feel obligated to make the best and most use of this gift while he is still able. The question is rhetorical, “If not now, then when!?”
What is this grand self-discovery process? It is an exercise in self – love, but not self-love for the self alone. This is not about being selfish. Loving my neighbor as myself implies that first I love myself. The greatest favor I can do for another is to appreciate and develop and discover my true self. The world deserves a better, happier version of me.
I do believe that Rabbi Zacharia Wallerstein worked long and profoundly hard on discovering and polishing the many facets of his dynamic and diamond-like personality. In doing so, he gained access to a master key to help many thousands of people, and he heard the clock was ticking. Indeed, the clock is ticking!