Love before love

As Shabbat came to an end, the week has seen the passing of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky came to a close. When I heard that this great Chassidic rabbi, psychiatrist and spiritual teacher had transitioned from this world, his “fish love” story came to mind.

In this Chassidic Story, the Kotsker rebbe asked someone eating a fish:

-Why do you eat this fish?

-Because I love it.

-You love the fish? Really? That’s why you take it and you kill it and you boil it and you eat it?”

Most would assume this is a veganism parable, but in fact it is about love, and more particularly, about our tendency to confuse consumption with love.

 Love, one of the most exploited values in Western (Consumption) Culture, is also one of the most misunderstood activities of the heart and mind.


“Fish love” can be described as a self centered way of relating to others. The other is loved not because of who they are, but because they tend to our needs. Martin Buber has described it as the “I/it” way of connecting to others in object-relationships, rather than the “I/thou” way of connecting, upon which we can build relational relationships. 

It is hard to admit it, even to ourselves, but after some self-reflection, most people would recognize object-love tendencies in their relationships (at least to some extent).

One of the reasons most people can identify the “fish love” in their relationships, is because they have also experienced this type of conditioned love in their past. When we grew up with an implicit message that our parents would love us more if we acted in a particular way, chances are we will replicate this model with our friends, lovers, and with our own children.

There is a way of breaking free from such patterns, and this is where the fish love parable meets its own limits: If we go all the way to the root of the problem, there is another step prior to the type of conditional love that fosters object-relationships.

Object relationship means treating the other as an object who will fulfill us. By loving this way, we outsource our own fulfillment, often because we don’t have confidence in our ability to fulfil ourselves.   


There is a step before love. Before love, there must be love.

This is the injunction at the heart of the passuk Rabbi Akiva calls the “greatest principle in Torah”: “and you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19.18). 

This passuk implies that just to the extent that we are able to love ourselves, will we be able to love anyone else.

As Valentine’s day approaches- we’re still somehow part of this Western consumer Society after all! – whether we are in a relationship, leaving one, seeking one, or being happily single, now may be a good time to take a step back and to take the time to look at our relationship with ourselves. 

If we  want to be able to  love others, we need to be able to love ourselves first. Often we’ll need to learn how to do this on our own. Love which is so often presented as a feeling, as something that “falls upon us”, is rather a skill : an “Art”, as Psychologist Erich Fromm so aptly put it in his book “The Art of Loving”. 


But here is where the fish eater needs to learn fishing. Art isn’t something that appears overnight. It requires practice.

Meditation is one of the most beautiful tools for self-transformation. The Jewish tradition is rich with contemplative techniques that can help us improve on different levels in our relationship with ourselves, the Divine, and others. 

One technique, “hitbonenut” or “self-observing”, is a form of contemplation aiming at fostering insight. For the Rambam, hitbonenut was a way of connecting to the Divine, by looking at nature. For the Kabbalists, hitbonenut was done by meditating on specific Psukim (verses). Other meditation techniques, such as Hashkata by the Piaseczener rebbe, through the repetition of specific psukim, help us improve our midot (our character traits).

In a typical Jewish Meditation retreat, such techniques are combined, as we move from quieting the mind (hashkatah) to strengthening the focus and setting the right intentions (kavannah), in order to give ourselves the gift of insight (hitbonenut). These are preparation steps for the tikun (fixing) of our midot, so that we can change our patterns of relating to ourselves and others.

A wonderful meditation practice to strengthen self-love is a word-repetition practice, a meditation dear to both the Kabbalists and the Chassidim. The idea is to connect to a prayer that may be familiar, as it has been said each day for millennia, for all of us: the Birkat Cohanim, or Priestly Blessing. The words of this prayer are one the first words uttered in the morning prayers. We can take a moment of silence to prepare our minds and hearts, and then, utter quietly to ourselves these verses :

“May G.d Bless you and protect you.. May G.d shine on you and show you grace… May G.d lift its face towards you and place upon you peace”

When we make this recitation a hitbonenut meditation, when we take the time to repeat slowly these verses for ourselves, perhaps with eyes closed, focusing on the energy behind the words, we give ourselves real loving-kindness (chessed). This simple practice can help heal the way we relate to ourselves, and water the seeds of self-love.

Now more than ever is an invitation for us to turn within and meet our own hearts. Being more at home is an opportunity to become more grounded and to learn to look deeply into the way we love ourselves, so as to deepen our ability to love others.

The author teaches  jewish meditation with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and will be leading an online jewish meditation retreat about Love with Applied Jewish Spirituality on Sunday February 14th, 2021. 

About the Author
Dr. Mira Neshama Niculescu is a Teacher of Jewish Meditation. She received her Doctorate in Sociology of Religion from the Ecole de Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and her certificate of “Jewish Mindfulness Teacher” from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She learned Torah at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Studies and is a Rabbinic Fellow at Beit Midrash Ha’ El in Jerusalem. She chairs the Clergy Council at Roots/Shorashim, and she teaches Torah and Jewish Meditation with Akadem, Applied Jewish Spirituality, Or Ha Lev, Pardes, Moishe House Europe and at various institutions internationally.
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