Judaism teaches us that love (ahavah) is the inner side of compassion (chesed). Or we could imagine it this way: chesed is “the Love Supreme” above that fuels and fires the ahavah of “the Love Below,” that which is shared between human beings.
Or we can learn what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Reb Moshe Leib Sassover, one of the greatest students of the Maggid of Mezeritch, teaches a remarkable tale about ahavah as the inner side of chesed. He writes:
Once I came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka. One of them, in a slurred, drunken drawl yelled to his friend: “Igor! Do you love me?”
Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered: “Of course, Ivan, of course, I love you!”
“No, no,” insisted Ivan, “Do you really love me, really?!”
Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him:
“What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!”
“Oh, yes, yes?” countered Ivan. “If you really loved me…then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?”
It is this moment, when Ivan really sees and feels Igor’s pain in his heart, only then can we ascend from the place of ahavah to the higher point of chesed!
Love is about ME. Compassion is about WE.
This Yom Kippur, we are invited to shift from ME to WE. Let us ponder: What hurts do we want to heal? What worlds will we rebuild this Yom Kippur through compassion?
– Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: The illustration seen here is an updated version of the original, created in 5776 / 2016 to illustrate Rabbi Glazer’s Parashat Acharei Mot Torah Byte. According to the Torah’s description of the scapegoat ritual, which we read about on Yom Kippur, the Israelite priests use Azazel’s goat as a proxy, an animal laden with the sins of the community and then led into the remote desert and set free, presumably carrying the people’s sins to some distant place. But that p’shat (straightforward) interpretation makes it all seem too easy. Atonement doesn’t happen that way. Rather, the goat is released, but roams unseen in the wilds of our psyche, informing our actions in the world until we have courage enough to confront our missteps and failings. Past deeds, for good or for ill, are not erased by primitive magic. The scapegoat’s eyes are always on us, and we are not called upon to be perfect (nor to deny our imperfect pasts), but instead to strive to better ourselves and to make the world better through action in it. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.