R. Isaac Luria, otherwise known as the Arizal, used to say that, even before tefilla or ritual, every day should be started by accepting upon oneself the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך—the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself.
As parents and as educators, we should remind our children that all of our learning and actions should lead us to that goal of empathy. But how do we get there? What brings us to the realization of this mitzvah?
Sometimes that means to follow the heart and feelings. Sometimes it means to follow the head and thoughts. But it always means to follow our moral muscle, to follow our conscience.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he or she must take it because conscience tells her or him that it is right.”
The central path toward the goal of empathy is to follow the conscience; it will for sure not always be easy, it will not always be popular, but if done with true soul searching, it will always lead to what is right.
The Hebrew word for conscience, matzpun, contains the root צ-פ-ן. By our actions and words we must display and instill the importance of following the voice of the מַצְפּוּן every day.
And there are two other words with the same root that can help us realize the Ari’s goal, both for ourselves and for others.
The first comes from the Pesach Seder. At the end of the meal we eat the afikoman. As we know, this step is called צפון, meaning to hide, to conceal, as the afikoman is usually hidden.
Rav Kook tells us that what is hidden is our true essence. It is at this moment, as we conclude the Seder after learning about our essence as a people, where we try to access our truest selves. And once again, our truest selves, this tzafun, is not our emotions alone and not our intellect alone, but it is that complex combination—the matzpun, the conscience. When we do the hard work to access that part of ourselves, we can figure out who we are and thus be better prepared to show empathy toward others.
And one more word with that same root—the word is מצפן. A matzpen is a compass. As parents and teachers this is our full-time job—to instill in our children the educational, moral and religious tools that help guide and navigate an ever-increasing challenging world. It is with this matzpen that we hope that the moral muscles of the matzpun increase to make the world a better place where the goal of the Arizal can be realized.
So as we pack up our classrooms for the summer and head toward other destinations, let’s remember that every moment, even those that are called “escapes,” are educational opportunities to lead us and others toward the goal of fulfilling that mitzvah that is more easier said than done, the goal of ואהבת לרעך כמוך.
By Rabbi Aaron Frank
Rabbi Aaron Frank is the head of school at Kinneret Day School.