One of the classic books on Mussar that deals with improving one’s character is called, “Orchot Tzaddikim”, or “The Way of the Just”. Various human emotions are discussed in this book to allow a person to work on himself in order to find contentment and to become a kinder and more giving person.
There is a chapter on the subject of love. The author who is not known writes that love is the most powerful of human emotions. It can be extremely positive when used sincerely in a relationship. And when it comes to loving G-d, this is the highest level of worship. However, there is negative love or bad love that can be very destructive.
Often people use the term “love” as a device of manipulation. “I’m only telling you to do this because I love you!” is a common way to get people to do what you want. Parents are guilty of misusing the term love when they want their children to do what they say even if it may not be the best thing for the child. The child is confused because what they are asked to do may not seem right. Ultimately one shows true love by his actions, loyalty, and devotion, and not by words.
The Orchot Tzaddikim gives several examples of good love-bad love. In general, he defines good love as love that comes with wisdom and bad love is where the so called love supersedes wisdom. Two such examples are the love of women and the love of one’s children. If the love is infatuation to the point that the woman or child can do no wrong, it is bad love. Parents need to show their love by disciplining a child and not giving them everything they want. Similarly, in a marriage, there must be give and take where each spouse tries to raise up the other.
Love of money can certainly be a bad love. This love will lead one to earn his money dishonestly and will not allow this person to be generous and charitable. A good love of money is the reverse. The person feels blessed to have money and he uses it to help people in need.
Another example of good love-bad love is the love of relatives. Some families are taught to support their extended families through thick and thin. But what if the relatives are criminals? Should they cover up for their crimes. One must examine his family and see if being close is going to have a positive effect on him. If it doesn’t, he must distance himself.
The Orchot Tzaddikim also speaks of being overly obsessed with loving honor and pampering oneself to a ridiculous extent. These obsessions are counterproductive and are clear examples of bad love. If one uses his wisdom, he will measure things carefully before making bad choices.
The ideas brought here are meant to give us a kind of self check to see if we really have learned how to love in a good way. We need to be careful how to use this powerful emotion in a positive way to lift people higher and to get closer to G-d.