November 23, 2022 by Lazer Brody
The sixth of Judaism’s Seven Marital Blessings asks Hashem, “Make these friends and lovers exceedingly rejoice even as You made Your creation rejoice in the Garden of Eden as of old. Blessed art Thou, Hashem, Who gladdens bridegroom and bride.”
Let’s pay close attention to the wording of this blessing – “friends and lovers.” This is Torah, not Hollywood or the outside world. In Ch.5 of Song of Songs, King Solomon juxtaposes love and friendship when he says, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend”. He didn’t need a holy spirit to write that the prerequisite of love is friendship. The Torah in Leviticus 19:18 commands, “And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
According to Rebbe Akiva, the father of the Oral Law, loving one’s fellow human is not just another one of the 613 mitzvoth, but a major guideline that’s the backbone of the entire Torah (see Yerushalmi Nedarim, 9:4). Our sages tell us that one cannot be agile in learning Torah or performing a mitzvah without loving the Torah, loving the mitzva, and loving The Almighty Who gave them to us. We can therefore conclude that where there is no agility there is no love.
Where did Rebbe Akiva learn that “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is the foundation of all of Torah? An even bigger question is one that baffles Talmudic scholars, why Rebbe Akiva left his two monumental teachers, Rebbe Yehoshua ben Chanania and Rebbe Eliezer ben Horcanus – the two prime students of the renowned Raban Yochanan ben Zakai – to spend 22 years as the understudy of Nachum Ish Gamzu, who barely said one halacha on religious law in the entire Talmud?
The Gemara in Tractate Taanis 21 a tells us that Nachum Ish Gam-Zu was blind, devoid of hands and feet, covered in boils, lying in a dilapidated shack about to cave in. His students placed the legs of his bed placed in water-jugs to prevent the ants from reaching his defenseless torso. His students wanted to rescue him from the house and then rescue his vessels. He told them to save the vessels first because as long as he was lying in the shack, it wouldn’t collapse.
The students first removed his possessions and then took him out of the shack – it collapsed immediately. When they asked him why he was suffering so much, he told them that he brought it upon himself. He was on his way to his father-in-law, with three donkeys laden with food, drink and delicacies. While riding his donkey, a beggar asked him for sustenance. He told the beggar to wait for him to dismount from the donkey, but by the time he had done so, the beggar had died. Nachum prostrated himself on the dead beggar, and cursed his eyes for not quickly seeing the needs of the beggar and his hands and feet for being too slow in coming to the beggar’s aid. Doesn’t that sound a little too stringent?
Not for Nachum Ish Gamzu. If I’m not mistaken, Rebbe Akiva, who learned all of religious law from his two teachers Rebbe Yehoshua ben Chanania and Rebbe Eliezer ben Horcanus, left them to spend 22 years as the understudy of Nachum Ish Gamzu to learn that loving your neighbor is the backbone of the entire Torah and where there’s a lack of agility, there’s a lack of love. By not helping the poor person fast enough, Nachum Ish Gamzu, on his lofty spiritual level, saw himself as transgressing the entire Torah and that’s why he so severely sentenced his entire body, for the 613 mitzvoth correspond to the 613 parts of the body.
We now easily understand why Rebbe Akiva’s 24,000 students were sentenced to death by the Heavenly Court during the first 33 days of the Omer. It’s as if the Heavenly Court accuses them, “You are students of Rebbe Akiva and you don’t properly respect one another? Not only do you not deserve to pass the Torah on to subsequent generations, you don’t deserve to live!” To this day, we still lament their deaths. Even deeper, we lament the prevalence of intramural contention and hate that’s still with us. This is the utter opposite of loving your neighbor as you love yourself in accordance with the Torah’s commandment.
Rebbe Akiva, more than 100 years old, made a new beginning with his five great students, Rebbe Yehuda Bar Ilai, Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, Rebbe Meir Baal Haness, Rebbe Yossi ben Chalafta and Rebbe Elazar ben Shammua. These sages were all great lovers of their fellow human, Though they often disagreed with each other, they did so respectfully.
What does all this come to teach us? In marriage, your spouse must first be your best friend. Only then, can you become lovers. Love is certainly not romance or bodily lust; it’s how quickly you jump to help each other. What’s more, if a person can’t love his spouse, his closest neighbor in the world, then he’s in fantasy land if he thinks he’s properly learning and observing Torah. The barometer of our love of Hashem and our love of Torah is how much we love that person who Hashem placed under the chuppa with us. That’s the other half of our body and soul as the Zohar teaches. That’s why we say in Sheva Brachos, “friends and lovers” – first a husband and wife must be best friends, and only afterword can they be lovers. G-d bless for a happy marriage!