It is Sefirat HaOmer again, and like every year I can tell it is going by so fast that by the time it gets to Shavuos I realize I haven’t prepared at all. Like always around this time, the topic of loving fellow Jews is on my mind. Actually that topic is frequently on my mind, not just during Sefira, but I guess that is just how I was brought up. Neither of my parents grew up Orthodox, though both grew up with a strong connection to Judaism. Because of this, though I always attended religious schools, during my childhood I found myself in non-religious or even non-Jewish environments.
This exposure really strengthened my Judaism, because when you are 10 or 11 years old and a non-Jewish kid asks you, “What does Kosher mean?” you have know the answer and know what you’re talking about. When your Reform friend comes over for shabbos and asks you questions, you need to know why you do what you do, and when your Conservative relative brings you to their synagogue, then you learn why in your shul the men and women sit separately, while in her shul they sit together. In addition, my experiences made me sensitive to the attitudes of Jews towards one another, particularly the attitudes of Orthodox Jews towards the other denominations.
Being Orthodox means believing that all of Torah (Torah shebichtav and Torah shebaal peh) are from Hashem, and this means disagreeing with Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or other types of Jews, but disagreement does not mean that the Orthodox attitude should be anything less than “ViAhavta L’Rayacha Kamocha” towards them.
I write this because a friend recently told me a story which she prefaced as being a “funny story” that had been making the rounds. The story was about non-religious Jews who enter an Orthodox home where the family is sitting shiva. Not knowing the protocol of what to do, they notice people muttering statements to the mourners, but do not know what to say. So they approach the mourners and read the only sign they see visible, the one that lists the davening times. Apparently this is amusing, but I do not find it to be so. Since I heard this story after it had been passed through a whole chain of people, I can only hope that it has been altered and that the situation was not as bad as it sounds.
I give credit to the fact that from the report I heard no one laughed out loud, and no one informed them of their mistake in a way that would embarrass them. I also of course don’t blame the mourners, who are going through difficult times. What bothers me about the story is that there were other frum Jews in the room. Why did none of them notice a few clearly non-religious people standing around awkwardly looking for direction? Could no one have approached them and tried to explain what to do?
This is just a story, but many non-religious Jews feel that Orthodox Jews look down on them. They feel this way because many Orthodox Jews do look down on them. That pains me because the Torah attitude is not to judge others and if there is anyone who should excel at kindness in interpersonal relationships, at Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chavero, it is those who keep Torah. Unfortunately that is not always the case. I had a teacher who said that when it comes to our relationships with people, we have to separate the Gavra and the Cheftza- the person and their actions. As frum Jews, may disagree with the actions of non-religious Jews- the fact that they do not keep shabbos or kashrus, but our attitude towards their actions does not need to be the same as our attitude towards them as people.
I don’t mean to lump all Orthodox Jews into this category, and in fact most of the Orthodox Jews I know are kind towards non-religious Jews, and I most often see religious Jews making a Kiddush Hashem with their outstanding behavior. During this time I think about how important it is to work on how we deal with other people. This skill is a different one than we are often used to working on in life. We grow up attending school, where the focus is on learning, on how much you know, on being smart, on intelligence, on getting good grades. A person can be brilliant or knowledge, a person can even know the halachos and know how to treat people right, but that does not translate into action. That is what we learn from Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim. No doubt that they were brilliant and knew a tremendous amount of Torah, more than we can fathom. But they did not treat each other right, and at the end of the day, that was important to Hashem.