"And you shall love your friend as yourself"(Vayikra 19:18). Rabbi Akiva said, "This is the great principle of the Torah".
In truth, though we know loving may be the ideal feeling we should have for the other, first we need to tolerate others, especially those different from ourselves.
Even before the Torah gives us the commandment "Love your friend", there is the imperative, often easier spoken than achieved, "Do not hate your brother in your heart."
We live with all kinds of intolerances, and frequently harbor secret animosities.The smart struggle to tolerate the dimwitted, the competent resent the inept,the physically gifted are embarrassed by the uncoordinated. At work, at home,in the street, we typically treat people who are not as "beautiful' as us as if they had chosen their looks. Schoolchildren pick on their "nerdy" or "fat" classmates and their behavior does not always mature in time. It simply becomes more subtle.
The challenge remains: how do we develop tolerance for those different and, at times, opposite from us, a tolerance that not only permits them to exist but invites them to belong and to share in community?
The Torah this week in the parsha of Re'eh gives us a clue. In commanding the Jew to give charity the verse in the Torah ends "...for there will never cease to be poor in the land." Rashi notes that this comment seems to contradict an earlier promise that as long as Israel observes the Sabbatical year "there will be no poor among you for Hashem will bless you in the land He gives to you."
The Chatam Sofer explains that giving tzedaka requires compassionand empathy. But one must not relate so closely to the fate of the poor that he genuinely fears becoming poor himself. If that happens, he will actually be less generous. Over-identification can make one insecure in his/her owm circumstances and therefore less forthcoming.
The Chatam Sofer then translates G-d's promise and blessing in a unique way. The second verse we quoted is not meant to say there will no longer be poor in reality. The Torah already tells us that there will always be poor. Rather it should be understood, "There shall be no poor within you." Poverty must always exist, but the challenge is to give without fear of poverty for oneself, and therfore be generous.
The Chatam Sofer's insight corresponds to what we know about intolerance. Intolerance is born out of fear. That which I am afraid of for myself I resent in others. The thin person disdains the obese because s/he is afraid of becoming fat him/herself. This over-identification with others causes me to want to distance myself, often through impatience and disdain.
The challenge for all of us is to embrace this notion that "there will be no poor within you." We need to remain secure in our differences from others. If I am smart I will remain smart. If I am competent such is my gift. Others who are not like me will not jeopardize my talents and abilities.
Recognizing this allows me to be interested in people different from me, rather than feel threatened by them. It provides me not only with the tools to fulfill the mitzva "And you shall not hate your brother in your heart". It allows me to fulfill the ideal voiced in Avot to "learn from everyone".
Most important this recognition fosters a community of inclusiveness, where we all fully belong, with and because of our differences.