The Paradoxical Path of a Universal People

 Dear Friends,


The opening themes of the “parsha” – Torah portion – which we will read on this Shabbos relate to our material and spiritual life in the Land of Zion. Within this section, we find the mitzvah to emulate the Divine ways, and this mitzvah is mentioned in the following verse which describes our collective covenant with Hashem – the Compassionate and Life-Giving One:


“Hashem will confirm you for Himself as a holy people, as He swore to you – if you observe the mitzvos of Hashem, your God, and you go in His ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9)


Maimonides, in his explanation of the mitzvah to go in Hashem’s ways, cites the following teaching of our sages:


“Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Compassionate, so should you be compassionate; just as He is called Gracious, so should you be gracious; just as He is called Righteous, so should you be righteous; just as He is called Chasid – devoted to acts of love – so should you be a chasid.” (Book of Mitzvos, #8)


Since human beings are created in the Divine Image, they have the capacity to emulate the ways of Hashem; thus, the Torah calls upon us to “go in His ways” - to emulate the loving and universal Divine benevolence and compassion which is described in the following verse:


“Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works.” (Psalm 145:9).


The loving Divine benevolence and compassion is not limited to the People of Israel or even human beings; it extends to all His works! We must therefore follow the universal Divine example. In this spirit, there is a story in the Talmud which reveals that the words, “His compassion is on all His works,” also teaches us to be kind to animals. (Baba Metzia 85a))


The above mitzvah teaches us to express our love to all creation. There is another mitzvah, however, which states:


“Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 19:18).


The Hebrew word for “neighbor” in the above verse is raya – a word which can also be translated as “comrade.” Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah that this is a Divine mandate to love each member of the Community of Israel (Hilchos Deos 6:3). This is also the interpretation of Maimonides in his Book of Mitzvos, #206.


If we, the people of the Torah, have a mitzvah to turn outward through expressing love to all creation, then why do we also have a mitzvah to turn inward through expressing love to each member of our people?” My study of Torah has helped me to understand that both of these mitzvos – each in its own way – leads to a universal goal. It is easy to understand how the mitzvah to emulate the universal Divine love leads to a universal goal, but how does the mitzvah to love the members of our own community lead to a universal goal?  


The mitzvah to have loving concern for all Israel is related to the following universal mission of our people: to establish a loving and caring society in Zion which can serve as a social model for other nations. References to this universal mission appear in our Sacred Scriptures, and we will begin with the message that Moshe, our teacher, gave to our people before we entered the Promised Land:


“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and fulfill them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)


The following quotes from the Book of Isaiah can serve as other examples:


“Nations will walk by your light and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).


“For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her righteousness emanates like bright light… Nations will perceive your righteousness” (Isaiah 62:1, 2).


Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, a noted sage of the previous generation, once told a group of students: “We have to influence the nations of the world with ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” But he then pointed out that, paradoxically, this mitzvah obligates us to love every Jew! This means, said Rabbi Wasserman, that through this mitzvah, we can make “ahavah” – love – in the world. According to Rabbi Wasserman, this mitzvah can increase love in the world for the following reason: Through loving each member of the Community of Israel, we will serve as a communal model of love which other societies can emulate.


There is an advantage to serving as a communal model of love in our own land. As my late teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, points out in his book, “Masterplan,” we can best serve as an inspiring social model in our own land, as having our own land enables us to apply the loving teachings and precepts of the Torah to all areas of a nation’s life, including political, economic, and agricultural activities. For example, there are various agricultural mitzvos which call upon us to share the harvest with the needy. Rabbi Carmell adds the following insight: The Land of Zion is especially suited for our universal mission to serve as a model which can influence other nations, as it is at the juncture of three continents, Asia, Africa, and Europe; thus, the Prophet Ezekiel describes our land as, “the navel of the earth” (Ezekiel 38:12). This central location increases our ability to inspire other nations through the Torah. (This insight regarding the central location of Zion was cited in the name of Rabbi Solomon D. Sassoon, a noted Sephardic Torah scholar of the 20th century.)


In a limited way, Jews can also serve as a communal model of love in the Diaspora. I have read articles over the years about how a number of ethnic groups in the United States have admired the organized way in which the Jewish community helps its own members who are in need of various services, and these ethnic groups therefore view the Jewish community’s services as a model for their own communities. One fascinating example is the volunteer ambulance service known as, “Chevra Hatzalah” – a non-profit organization of Torah-committed volunteers which is also the largest all-volunteer ambulance service in the United States. Their volunteer force includes over one thousand emergency medical technicians, paramedics, physician assistants and MDs who are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, throughout the Greater NY Metropolitan Area and areas of Upstate NY. (Similar “Hatzalah” groups exist in other Torah-committed communities in North America.)


All volunteer emergency care providers are trained in search and rescue; moreover, they provide high quality pre-hospital emergency medical treatment and transportation at no cost to all who need it. Their ambulances arrive within a few minutes, and their quick response helps to save lives; in fact, their ambulances were the first to arrive at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The dedication and self-sacrifice of these Torah-committed volunteers on that tragic day was praised by people of all faiths and nationalities.

With the exception of regional emergencies, Hatzalah is a neighborhood service; thus, it strengthens the feeling of being part of a close community. In addition, it is comforting for someone to know that trained members of one’s own community will come and help if there is a medical emergency.

The role of the Hatzalah volunteer is multi-faceted. Providing immediate medical aid is not the volunteer’s sole task, even if it is the most pressing. Patients have other needs that must not be forgotten. For example, do they need someone to stay with them in the hospital or care for them at home? Do they need medical referrals? Do they have everything they need for their hospital stay? Will their home be locked and secure? Will their doctors be notified? Is there an urgent matter that requires immediate attention? Hatzalah volunteers ensure that these needs and many others are not forgotten.

They assist the family and caregivers, as well. The family and caregivers have needs that are often overlooked in a patient-centric environment. They are often pushed to the sidelines as all available resources are directed towards the patient. Hatzalah volunteers assist the caregivers who accompany the patients by giving them advice, food packages, and sometimes even some money when people are caught short. Hatzalah sees to it that children left at home will be taken care of. When necessary, Hatzalah volunteers arrange for support and assistance to be provided by other agencies.


Hatzalah began in the Satmar Chassidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and branches were later established in other Torah-committed communities in the Diaspora and Israel. The Jewish Week of New York (Feb. 13, 2004) described how Hatzalah inspired an African American leader in Brooklyn to start a similar ambulance corps in “Bedford Stuyvesant” – an African American neighborhood in Brooklyn.


James Robinson, who founded the “Bed-Stuy Corps” with Joe Perez, said he was inspired by Hatzalah during his long career with the city’s Emergency Medical Service. He said:


“I was amazed that every time I would respond to a call in a Jewish neighborhood, the patient had already been removed by Hatzalah. In 1998, I decided to see if I can do it in Bed-Stuy. Now I try to pattern everything I do after Hatzalah.”

The above story about Hatzalah demonstrates that when we fulfill the mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), we can become a source of inspiration for other groups. The Jewish Week also reported that a number of Torah-observant Jews have volunteered to assist the new ambulance corps in Bed-Stuy. Through this act of loving-kindness, these volunteers are fulfilling the mitzvah to emulate the Divine ways.

From the perspective of the Torah, our turning inward and our turning outward have the same universal goal: to become a source of blessing for all humanity. This goal is expressed in the Divine promise given to our father, Jacob, whose twelve sons became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel:


“All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14).


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. For information on the Hatzalah network based in New York, visit:  


2. For information on the Hatzalah network in Israel, visit:


Hazon - Our Universal Vision