The soft and beautiful music of our children’s piano playing is now at a standstill.
During these weeks between Passover and Shavuot, we remember and reflect on the tragic deaths of the 24,000 disciples of the famous second century sage, Rabbi Akiva. Several mourning practices are observed during this period of time, such as not listening to live music, not holding weddings, and not cutting of one’s hair.
The Talmud tells us the reason for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students was divine justice for their sin of “not treating one another with respect.”
In this week’s Torah portion, we have the famous biblical verse (Leviticus 19:18) “Love your fellow as yourself” – which Rabbi Akiva declared a “great principle of the Torah.” It would seem most appropriate therefore, that we take a moment to reflect on this important verse.
What does “Love your fellow as yourself” mean? The common understanding is the literal one, that one should love another as much as one loves oneself. But would that expectation not seem somewhat detached from reality? Is it at all possible for me to love another to the same extent as I love myself?
Perhaps, before we try to understand whether it is possible to love another as much as we love ourselves, we first try to understand how to love and accept ourselves in the first place.
Indeed, throughout history Judaism has taught the importance of loving and accepting ourselves. In modern terms we call this the psychology of self-esteem. It is only when we truly appreciate and love ourselves that we are able to love and respect others.
As a yeshiva student, I was sent on a two-year study program to the Rabbinical College of Melbourne, Australia. As part of our assignment, we would spend our Friday afternoons visiting offices, stores, and any other place where we could meet with the local community.
At one of these stores, I would meet Roza and her husband Lev, originally from the former Soviet Union. Together, we enjoyed many great discussions about Judaism.
One Friday, Roza told me: “When I was a very young child, we lived in a small house and I would sleep in the same room as my grandmother. Every morning, my grandma would put her hands together and whisper something, and I would ask her, ‘Grandma, what are you saying?’ she would smile and say ‘bubele, it’s good, it’s good, perhaps when you will be older you will understand.’
“Due to the circumstances then in Russia, people had to be very secretive,” Roza said, “but Mendy, I know she was praying.”
“Roza,” I said. “I am able tell you what your grandma was saying, because since I was very little my mother would teach me to do the same, and Jewish people throughout the generations have been doing the same as well. Every morning when I wake up, my mother taught me to put my hands together and say, ‘Modeh ani fefonecha…’ ‘Thank you God for restoring my soul’. Every morning we show our gratitude to God for giving us another day to live.”
While in its most basic sense, Modeh is a statement of gratitude, the word that we translate as soul is neshama. Neshama means breath, as in the story of the creation of Adam, where the verse says “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the Adam became a living person.”
In saying the Modeh Ani, we focus on our essence, our core, the Godly soul that we each possess. When we consider that we are more than just a body and mind, when we can recognize who we are at our core, namely a spark of the Divine, we can begin to truly appreciate ourselves, and in turn we can begin to appreciate others for who they are as well.
There is a beautiful tradition to teach our children, even before they are able to speak, the biblical verse “Torah tziva lanu moshe” (Deuteronomy 33:4)- “The Torah that Moses commanded us is an eternal inheritance to the Jewish people.” Teaching our children this verse, serves as a foundation upon which a child can build a healthy self-esteem, self-worth, and self-love.
Let us take a look at the term “inheritance” used in this verse. “Inheritance” is something transmitted from a parent to a child. By using the term, the verse teaches us that God loves and values each of us like a parent loves a child. It is precisely because of this love that God has given each of us the Torah as a precious and personal gift. The moral, ethical, and spiritual teachings flowing from the Torah are given to us by God, our heavenly Parent, to study and enjoy, and to enable us to develop and reach our full potential.
When we realize our essence is a very part of the Divine, and how dear each of us is to God, when we realize how each of us truly matters, when we can appreciate our true self-worth and love ourselves, we can love and respect our neighbor too. For they too share the same essence.
And when we learn how to truly love ourselves, and thus in turn to truly love another, we can be certain that we will fulfill our part in preparing the world for an era of true peace, the Messianic era, when the heavenly song of God’s home, the Holy Temple, will once again float through the streets of a Jerusalem rebuilt. It will be then that the music will never end, may it be so in our day!