To give chocolate hearts and mushy cards, or not to give? For some, it’s a bold prospect, taking the relationship to another level. For others, it’s a question of Jewish identity and assimilation: is Valentine’s Day simply an innocuous American holiday or is it a Christian holiday that Jews should resist? I think our time would be far more wisely spent thinking about what our tradition has to say about love and using Valentine’s Day as a prompt, however you mark it (or not), to recommit to loving Jewishly –our spouses, siblings, parents, children, friends, colleagues, and others who capture our hearts. Though there are a variety of loves in life, our singular tradition has much to say about how to love them all.
Each Friday evening we sing the love poem of the mystics, Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah – Come my beloved, let’s go welcome the [Shabbat] bride.
Lechah – Come. The mystical tradition teaches that all holy things require a summoning. Love doesn’t just happen. Some may discover it suddenly or unexpectedly, but to hold onto it is something we have to go out and pursue, with a lot of effort and investment. Danger lurks when we rest satisfied in having found love and neglect the sacred task of finding it over and over again in our relationships.
So here are five gifts from Jewish tradition to give those you love this Valentine’s Day, and to keep giving throughout your relationship.
- V’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18)
In the middle book of the Torah, in the heart of that book, lies a verse claimed by Rabbi Akiva to be the essence of the entire Torah: Love your fellow as you love yourself. Most often the substance of these words is explained by how you treat another, as Hillel reiterated it: don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.
But there’s a crucial lesson embedded within the verse that serves as the premise for any interaction we have with another. Love your fellow as you love yourself teaches that self-love is the foundation for all love. Self-respect is the very source of the honor we give to another.
Taking time to work on ourselves by exercising, eating well, sleeping enough, going to therapy, and making sure we’re in the best shape possible is what allows us to help someone else achieve their own wellbeing. If we become depleted, we’ll have nothing left to give anyone else.
Standing up for ourselves and our beliefs and feeling clear and confident in our values enables us to help others articulate theirs and achieve the same clarity. Engaging in the activities and hobbies that bring us pleasure builds our respect for others who invest in their own interests and makes us happier poeple. And being a happy person contributes to the health of all our relationships.
It’s a common mistake to think that loving someone means always putting them first – a dangerous and destructive mistake that breeds resentment and stunts personal growth. There is a big different between self-care and selfishness. Being selfish means only ever thinking of our own needs and wants, and far from strengthening a relationship, usually leads to estrangement. Caring for ourselves by honoring our own needs and wants and sometimes even putting them ahead of others allows us to discover and live our true nature with which we can more deeply and lovingly care for family and friends.
Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah – Come, my beloved, let’s go welcome the [Shabbat] bride. If the bride is the object of our love, then who exactly is our beloved whom we’re inviting to join us?
The beloved we’re appealing to as we go out to find our lover is the ultimate beloved who lies deep within, my beloved in my core — me. For we can neither offer nor receive love until we affirm that we both possess valuable love to share and are deserving of being loved ourselves.
In Lecha Dodi we hear echoes of Lech Lecha, Go to yourself, the words that inspired Abraham to journey to find himself, to go deep within himself, in his search for love of the Divine. He couldn’t find the Other without first finding himself. For us, too, finding love in our lives requires an honest search for self, and a loving embrace of whom it is we discover.
So much depth is revealed when a word is examined at its roots. The Hebrew word for love is ahava, which is related to the Aramaic root hav, meaning to give.
Now that we’ve established the primacy of giving to ourselves in order to provide for others, we can focus here on what it means to be other-focused when it comes to love, to ahava.
While love is an emotion we feel towards another and express through words, as in, I love you, it’s only made manifest through action. It’s easy to say I love you, but much more demanding – and often difficult — to demonstrate. And the fundamental way we do so is through the act, and art, of giving.
Too often we assess the quality of the love in our lives by measuring how much we’re getting out of the relationship, how nurtured we’re feeling by it. We forget that our own generosity is a key variable in that calculation. Too often our feelings turn sour because we feel what we give to another isn’t reciprocated, as if love was a quid pro quo. Love, ahava, means being responsive to the needs and desires of someone else, and not just to get an equal portion of generosity in return, but to refine our own souls.
Nothing of any value in life materializes without considerable effort on our part: education, career, health, and, of course, relationships. Like any wise and thoughtful venture, the yield from investing in love can be magnificent, proving the adage that the more we give (but not to the point of emptying ourselves) the more we come to possess.
In spite of Darwinian theories that human evolution is motivated by an instinct to protect and advance ourselves, social scientists suggest that we are at our physical, emotional and psychological peak when we connect meaningfully with others and engage our capacity to give lovingly of ourselves.
The opening of this weekend’s Torah portion, Terumah, as explained by Jewish commentators throughout the ages, affirms the same insight: “God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel that they should take Me gifts; you shall accept My gifts from every person whose heart moves him.”
Take Me gifts – the paradoxical language of taking something that you are gifting another reflects the self-enrichment that comes from giving of ourselves;
from every person whose heart moves him – the Hasidic tradition teaches that when we give with a full heart, it’s considered a terumah, a gift that has the power to leharim, to elevate us and bring us to a higher level of consciousness and being.
What is it exactly that we give when we love?
Articles abound exploring the gifts we should endeavor to bestow upon those we love: sustenance, protection, attentiveness, affection, understanding, patience, praise, encouragement, validation, and more — all indispensable ingredients of a balanced and healthy relationship. But our tradition teaches us about one critical ingredient that’s often overlooked, an ingredient revealed by another close reading of our sacred words.
My late grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Lewittes, z”l, taught me that the Hebrew word for marriage, nisuin, shares a root with the Hebrew word for forgiveness, as in noseh avon vapeshah/[the holy One] forgives sin and wrongdoing. A loving relationship needs to contain the dynamic of forgiveness. Knowing when and how to forgive the inevitable hurts we cause one another is key to being able to move through the complexities, competing demands and seemingly insoluble conflicts that arise when we mesh our lives with another. And forgiveness isn’t only a gift we should give freely to those we love who don’t always show up for us the way we wish; it’s one we should learn to grant ourselves, too, when we fail to be the partner, sibling, child, parent or friend we know we have the capacity to be.
One more thought on ahava as giving: we ought to remember that receiving the love that others give to us is also necessary for a healthy relationship. Granting others the opportunity to elevate their own selves and actualize their potential to be sources of blessing to others by receiving their affection and attention graciously and gratefully is a profound act of our own giving, our own love.
- Imperfection is the New Perfection
In his book, Works of Love, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard warned against the arrogance of loving another in spite of their flaws and claiming credit for our own ability to rise above another’s limitations. Instead, true love deems “the other lovable in spite of and together with his weaknesses and errors and imperfections…”
Perhaps the greatest gifts the Torah gives us are the flawed characters in the stories of Genesis, figures who achieve greatness as much because of their mistakes as because of their wisdom or compassion. Our biblical ancestors are human beings with strengths and weaknesses, pettiness and generosity. We are not asked to emulate saints but to learn and grow from our interactions with heroes who are people just like ourselves – human beings who strive to walk a purposeful and righteous path in life but who often meander and sometimes even abandon the trail distracted by selfishness, fear or self-doubt. While the stories in the book of Genesis are the stories of the Jewish people in a collective sense — the stories of our shared ancestors – they are also the texts of our own lives and loves. And that is what brings us back to them over and over again.
The permission to journey through life not as someone other than whom we are, but as someone struggling to be the best that we can be, is, in my book, what accounts for the never-ending relevance and spiritual genius of Judaism.
Such is the wisdom and gift of Torah: the gift of inclusion; the gift of family; the sacred struggle for wholeness amidst brokenness, the search for one’s inner light amidst darkness; the hunger for nourishment in times of famine — all in the company of those who have made that journey themselves and the embrace of those who understand.
And this is the essence of that gift: that imperfection is the Torah’s definition of perfection, or to paraphrase the Kotzker Rebbe, brokenness is the new wholeness. Acknowledging the fractured and fragmented experience of human life and striving for integrity and purpose within that imperfect reality is the fullest, most honest, most perfect expression of our human spirit.
In perhaps the most compelling image from Genesis, a limping Jacob emerges from his wrestling with the angel, a scene that can easily be read as his wrestling with all that he has been and done and all that he has yet to become and accomplish. He emerges on the one hand whole and filled with possibility, and, on the other, injured, limited, imperfect. And he emerges with a new name, our name, Yisrael: one who wrestles with the divine and prevails. Not “wins”, as in, defeats the other. But prevails in the sense of succeeding at the task of becoming, at actualizing the divine potential within us, a task that often leaves traces of its considerable struggle. This is the reality of human life, and of our history and destiny as members of the Jewish people. It demands from us humility and generosity of spirit, towards ourselves and towards others, similarly imperfect, with whom we yearn to be close.
- V’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha – Take Two
There are no specific people the Torah commands us to love. We’re not told to love our parents, children or spouses, though we are guided how to treat them. The figures we’re commanded to love include God, the stranger, and as our verse makes clear, our fellow human beings.
When, a few hundred years ago, the students of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi asked him whether love of God was greater than love of human beings, he replied that they are both the same. Except he also taught that when you love the things that your beloved loves, that is an even deeper show of love. In other words, when we love other human beings, all of whom are loved by the Divine, we are showing an even deeper love for the Divine. When siblings show love to one another, parents feel that as an expression of profound love towards them.
Loving what our beloved loves isn’t always easy. We may have different tastes in music, TV, movies, books, even friends and spirituality. But making the effort to share in their interests is an important reflection of our devotion to one another.
The Rebbe offered another take on this, an insight that illuminates one of the most challenging and risky responsibilities of love.
The Rebbe noted that the love of God, love of Torah and love of fellow human beings are in reality one indivisible love. Consequently, when there is a lack in one of them, they all suffer. When they are each fulfilled, the healing of the world will unfold. And just as the destruction of Jerusalem was caused by unbridled hatred between people, this ultimate redemption will be engendered by unqualified love between us.
What the Rebbe went on to teach was that if we see someone we care about failing to fulfill one of the three facets of love – of God, Torah and humanity — or we see them living in a manner that is either unbecoming of them or wasteful of their potential, our loving relationship with them obligates us to approach them and encourage them to examine their ways in order to live up to their inner promise.
For most that’s a hard and dangerous place to go with someone. For many, the inner workings of another person’s moral or spiritual compass are none of our business. Even the ancient Sages acknowledged that tochechah – the mitzvah of rebuking someone whose actions are hurtful and unflattering to himself or herself — is one of the hardest to fulfill. And yet, to stand by silently while someone we love behaves in ways that are self-destructive — whether emotionally, physically, professionally or socially – is hardly an expression of affection or devotion.
In the same way that our verse taught us earlier about the importance of self-love and caring about not just our bodies but also our emotional and psychological health, it also teaches that loving another human being means caring about their moral and spiritual lives, not just their physical wellbeing.
- Lichrot Brit/To Cut a Covenant
The phrase used in the Torah to make a covenant between two parties – divine or human — is lichrot brit. But lichrot means to cut or to separate. To cut a covenant, something that binds people, seems oxymoronic. The Maharal MiPrague, an important Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher and the leading rabbi in Prague in the 16th century, explained this language by explaining the paradoxical nature of love.
He taught that when we want to get close to someone, we don’t give up everything we are or have. Instead, we cut out or separate a special piece of ourselves and share it with the other person. This way we’ll always remain close to them for we’ll be drawn to them not just for who they are, but because they share an intimate piece of us.
And there’s more. When we love another by cutting off and giving them a piece of ourselves, we are also preserving the rest of ourselves for us. This is the part that many don’t get. Love doesn’t mean giving all of ourselves to another, erasing our uniqueness — our independent and separate mind, body, spirit, dreams and drive. Love doesn’t mean the blending together of two distinct entities such that each of their distinctiveness is overwhelmed and dissolved forever. Love means connecting to another without sacrificing, or demanding the sacrifice of, individuality.
It’s about setting the right boundaries. If we set them wisely, we can get close to lots of people. If there are no boundaries, if closeness is totally unrestrained, love can overwhelm and destroy. We’ve all seen relationships suffer, if not die, when too many assumptions are made about what someone else wants and needs and individuality is ignored.
So what appears as an oxymoron is actually a sacred truth: we cut a covenant with each other, we separate out pieces of ourselves to share, so as not to sacrifice the whole of who we are. Covenants then endure when the uniqueness of each partner is maintained, respected and valued.
The word for holiness in Hebrew is Kadosh, which literally means separate. Separation/distinction is key to living – and loving — a holy life. After all, if we love another solely by casting them in our own image, then it is we whom we love, not them.
When we think brit, we usually think of circumcision, milah. That symbol also has something precious to teach about love.
That covenant, too, is made with the language of cutting; the blessing made at the ceremony is koret habrit. While that might make sense given the nature of the ritual, there is something universal it conveys. Cutting suggests vulnerability. Skin is the armor that protects us from exposing our inner world of feelings, beliefs, and dreams. It is this armor that’s pierced – literally, at a circumcision bonding the boy to the Jewish covenant with the Divine, and figuratively, when we bond with one another — in order to allow us to take the risk of sharing intimately. The irony is that taking the risk of being vulnerable is precisely what brings us the strength to be close to someone else.
It’s no coincidence that the Temple in Jerusalem was built on same place as the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. The place embodying our greatest spiritual strength was the same as the place of our greatest spiritual vulnerability, where our story nearly came to an end. Courage and fortitude aren’t derived from the absence of challenge and tension, but from our ability to endure and move through trying times. Love is no different.
Both in our moments of private, self-affirmation and those of loving enjoyment of another human being, when we feel and show love we’re walking the same sacred path, the path of return to our greatest sources of authenticity and integrity. Or as Rumi put it, we’re all just walking each other home.
Whether you buy a card and chocolate on Valentine’s Day or not, take these gifts of Torah and Jewish wisdom with you and share them with those you love, over and over again.