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Relating to Others : Loving the Group When An Individual Must Be Critized

(We have been granted permission to publish Yosef's private letters by his main guide and mentor. What follows is one of those letters.)

Dear ....,

I found the following teaching in Rabbi Pliskin’s book, “Love Your Neighbor” – a book which has teachings from each parshah on loving and relating to others:

Regarding the mitzvah, Love your fellow as yourself, the Baal Shem used to say: “You know that you have many faults, nevertheless, you still love yourself. That is how you should feel towards your friend. Despite his faults, love him.” (Likutei Avraham, p. 221)

Just as each individual has faults, so too, one can find faults in each group, including the following fault that you mentioned: Each group tends to think that it is better in some way than the other group. This should not stop us, however, from loving the group, and I will begin by discussing the tribes of Israel, or the modern versions of the tribes today – the various group and subgroups of Chassidim, Misnagdim, Sephardim, etc.

It is natural that people feel closer to their own group, and it is natural that they admire the special qualities and traits of their own group. Although this awareness can lead to a feeling that their group is the “best” of the groups, it also encourages the members of each group to preserve its own distinct nature and identity. In fact, each “tribe” of Israel does have something special and unique to contribute to Klall Yisrael. Hashem values this diversity; thus, Hashem wants each tribe to be enthusiastic about its qualities and to strive to preserve them. An allusion to this idea is found in the following verse: 

“The Children of Israel shall encamp, each person by his flag according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” (Numbers 2:2)

“Each person by his flag” – The flag of each tribe had a distinguishing color and emblem representing the tribe. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, based on Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah)

The Tent of Meeting – the Sanctuary – contained the Ark of the Covenant, and within the Ark of the Covenant were the Tablets of the Covenant. After the Sanctuary was built, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were commanded to encamp around the Sanctuary with their respective flags.

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky raised the following question:

Why did the Twelve Tribes have to wait to encamp with their respective flags until “after” the Sanctuary was built?

He answers that until the Children of Israel had the Sanctuary – the unifying center – the differences between the tribes were a potential source of conflict. If the tribes would have encamped with their separate flags without a unifying center, there would have been a surge of “nationalistic” feeling within each tribe, with each tribe feeling superior to the other. The Sanctuary, however, provided a central focus to communal life and revealed that, whatever their differences, the tribes were united by their common service of Hashem. Once the Sanctuary was built, it was no longer dangerous to emphasize the unique nature of each tribe through their separate flags.

Rabbi Kamenetsky added a related idea: The diversity of the tribes has a positive role within the Divine plan, and we were reminded of this after the Exodus, when Hashem split the Sea into twelve different paths – one for each tribe. This positive role can only be fulfilled, however, when all the tribes are devoted to a common spiritual goal, and when there is mutual respect for the unique role of each tribe in the achievement of that goal.

In my own life, I have gotten to know various “tribes” of Jews, and I feel a love for all of them. They are all part of Klal Yisrael, and I see the beauty in each tribe. I realize that group pride is necessary in order for the group to function and maintain its identity, and I am therefore usually forgiving and tolerant if it leads many people in each group to feel that their group is the best, for as I stated, there is some truth to this feeling. In a certain way, each group is the best, which is why Hashem wants each tribe to exist. It becomes a dangerous feeling, however, when it leads to disdain for the members of the other tribe, and in such a case, the problem has to be addressed through the right mussar and education.

The fact that the problem exists has never stopped me from loving the diverse tribes of our people. And when I would visit various tribes and doven with them, study Torah with them, eat and drink with them, and sing and dance with them, I felt love for them; moreover, I also felt loved by them!

I came across a teaching of the Vilna Gaon in the book “Love Your Neighbor” which helped me to understand why I felt loved by them. According to the Vilna Gaon, the following verse mentions a basic principle of how people react to one another:

“As water reflects a face back to a face, so one's heart is reflected back to him by another.” (Proverbs 27:19).

Whatever expression is on your face when you look into water, this is the expression you will see staring back at you. So too, explains the Vilna Gaon, if you feel positive about another person, that person will feel positive towards you. But if inwardly you feel negative towards someone, even if you do not verbally say anything bad to him, he will have negative feelings toward you.

When I am with other Jews, I see the good in them; I see the beauty in them. This is my focus. I therefore feel love for them, and their sense of my love causes them to increase their love for me, for, “As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another.”

There are rare occasions when I had to speak out forcefully when individuals within one tribe would speak in a derogatory way about individuals in another tribe. There were occasions when these comments were made in a public forum, such as an e-mail discussion group, and I therefore went into battle to defend the honor and dignity of the group that was being attacked. The fact that I had to criticize the members of the group who were speaking in a harmful way did not cause me lose my love for the group itself. A wrong needed to be corrected, but the “tribe” is still worthy of my love. I may not always feel the love when I am in the heat of the battle with the nudnicks, but I notice that when the battle is over, I still love the tribe.

May Hashem help us to see the good within Klal Yisrael and within each of our tribes.

Yosef