Sarah, the daughter of Reb Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz, lived with her husband in his father’s home in Belz. It happened that she fell ill, and to keep her father informed the son-in-law sent daily telegrams to Reb Menachem Mendel to update him on her status.
One day no telegram arrived, and the rebbe became very distressed. His son, Reb Baruch, tried to comfort him. “It is still not too late for a telegram to arrive,” he said. “There is probably some holdup with the deliveries.” Several hours later, a telegram did arrive, informing the rebbe that his daughter had made a full recovery.
Reb Baruch heard this and went to rejoice with his father. Expecting to find the rebbe relieved, he was shocked to find his father weeping.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Sarah is fine, thank God, and you are not consoled?”
The rebbe said, “Trait by trait I have purified my character in order to make myself a pure klee Elohim. But there was one trait that I found almost impossible to master: loving my neighbor as myself. I had finally arrived at a state where I could love all people as I love your sister, you, and myself. All week long I receive letters and telegrams telling me of the pain and suffering of my neighbors, and yet this one telegram is late and I react not as a rebbe but as a father. I still love you more than them. And for this I am quite sad.”
Can you ever love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18)? Or, more importantly, would you want to? Reb Menachem Mendel thought it could be done and must be done. He wanted his heart opened so wide as to embrace even strangers as his own kin. And yet, he couldn’t do so. He saw this as a failure, but would we?
On the contrary, we love in concentric circles. We begin with ourselves. If we can truly love, honor, and respect ourselves, then we can do the same for others. The first “other” is our family; then our spouse, partner, and children; then our community; then our ethnic group; then all people; then all beings; then the world as a whole. But these loves are not equal in passion. I will never love a stranger’s son as I love my own, but I can nevertheless know how to treat him with honor and respect because I have learned from doing so with my own.
Menachem Mendel thought that you must love everyone the same. He is wrong. To love someone is to love what is unique about that person. Love is not a one-size-fits-all emotion. It is truest when it is unique to the person being loved. Indeed, a one-size-fits-all love threatens to erase the very things that make each person valuable.
Klee Elohim: (literally, “a godly vessel”): One who is required to free the self from all personal likes and dislikes, following only the will of God and erasing all traces of self and selfishness.