Sometimes, spelling doesn’t count!
The Apter Rav, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel zt”l (d. 1825), epitomized the name of his sefer, Oheiv Yisrael, as he truly exemplified love for every Jew. His audience had already come to expect that each of his sermons would center on the theme of Ahavas Yisrael, always with some connection to the weekly Torah portion.
Parshas Balak, in particular, required great creativity each year, as the narrative is replete with Balak and Bil’am’s hatred of B’nei Yisrael and their repeated attempts to curse the nation. Suffice it to say, this is not a story about brotherhood.
On one occasion, the Apter Rav focused on the name of the parshah itself. The word “Balak,” he explained, is an acronym for the most well-known verse about love, V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. His listeners stared back, not understanding; the letters did not seem to match up. Seeing their confusion, the Rav broke it down: The beis/veis of Balak stands for v’ahavta, the lammed is for l’rei’acha, and the kuf for kamocha.
The audience sat in puzzled silence for a full ten seconds, trying to make sense of an acronym in which two-thirds of the letters were wrong. The Apter Rav smiled patiently, waiting for the question. Finally, someone in the crowd piped up, “Rebbe, we don’t understand. V’ahavta starts with vav – not veis. Kamocha starts with kaf – not kuf. Phonetically, it could work, but those aren’t the correct letters!”
The Oheiv Yisrael clapped his hands in excitement. “Ah, yes, you are right – technically. And if one does not desire to love a fellow Jew, then it will be quite easy to find plenty of reasons to dislike him or her. A negative quality, an unbecoming behavior, a personality quirk, a hurtful comment – there is always a fault to be found if one is going to be a stickler for perfection. However, one who is truly determined to connect with other Yidden will not become bogged down by such minute details. Such a person will be able to look past a character flaw or an old spat, and do whatever it takes to spell out V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha!”
This phenomenon may be related to what social psychologists call “confirmation bias,” the tendency to absorb information that supports one’s preconceived beliefs, while rejecting any facts that pose a challenge. Typically, this concept is used to explain why political or social debates often prove unproductive, as each side exclusively focuses on materials that appear to support its existing views, while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
The same idea can be applied to our interpersonal relationships. Once we form a negative opinion of someone, we are certain to exclusively notice all of the blemishes and misprints that confirm this suspicion. All redeeming characteristics are rendered irrelevant. However, as the Apter Rav pointed out, if we are committed to the mindset of V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, then we will be primed to overlook any shortcomings and typos, and focus instead on the lovable qualities of every Jew!