Everybody talks about love – it’s in our popular media, our radio and TV stations (think Bachelorette) are awash with romantic stories and songs; magazines love to speculate about the love and lust of movie stars, sports heroes and politicians. If you were to focus on pulp fiction and popular culture you could mistakenly believe it’s all about love. A strange phenomenon in an age of anger and hatred; but then maybe it’s not so strange. Perhaps it’s precisely in times of terror and anxiety from Burma to Syria, Korea to Iran, that we seek refuge in the comforting and pedestrian. We want to believe that “All you need is love.”
Of course we need love – it powers life, it redeems, it connects, it enriches. But we also need a lot more than love, or at least a lot of other things to make love work: faithfulness, passion, structure and commitment. Love uncontained can actually be more destructive than constructive. Unconditional love may sound noble, but if it means that love should be totally un-judgemental, that I’m not able to challenge, criticise or be angry at you because I love you, then it undermines and damages our relationships. And if it means all I need to do is offer you sweet and sentimental words and hugs, then it is also rather shallow. Like a precious liquid, if love isn’t captured and contained, it can spill uselessly onto the ground…
I’m talking love this week not only because it’s a good subject, but because it features both in our calendar and Parasha. Tonight and tomorrow (Friday) is Tu B’Av, the fifteenth day of the month of Av. It’s a minor holiday celebrated especially in Israel as a holiday of love, similar to Valentine’s Day and is touted as a great day for weddings. It gets this name because in ancient times (before the destruction of the Temple in 70CE), it was a day for hooking up with a marriage partner. The earliest reference to it is in the Mishna (Taanit, 4):
“There were no happier days for the people of Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards (where the young men would gather) saying ‘Young man, consider who you’re choosing to be your wife’
It’s in the Parasha this week (Vaetchannan) in the “Shema Yisrael” passage with its evocative: “And you shall love.” Love holds us together as a Jewish people: our love of God, our love for our neighbour and our love for a stranger. These are the three fundamentals for building a good and just society; the three love commandments of the Torah.
It’s rather unfortunate that our detractors have perpetuated the myth that Judaism is a religion of law, not love, that we’re more preoccupied with contracts than compassion, justice than forgiveness. It’s also sad that you don’t hear much about love in our shules and batei Midrash; sometimes I wonder if we’ve bought into the lie of our enemies…
“You shall love” isn’t just a statement, it’s an imperative, a mitzvah, and it’s what defines us. It occurs 23 times in the Book of Deuteronomy – God loves us and we’re called on to love Him and others. Not the kind of nebulous love of fiction and “chick flicks” or the idealistic thinking of Virgil that “Love conquers all.” Rather, the tough refined love tempered by restraint and rightness, commitment and clarity. As David Brooks suggests: Commitment is falling in love with something or someone and then building a structure of behaviour around it to sustain that love. Says Rabbi Sacks: “Law, the mitzvot, halacha, is that structure of behaviour… we wed in poetry but we stay married in prose.”
There’s a marvellous stone sculpture in the garden of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (see picture). It’s made of 4 large blocks, each a letter of the Hebrew word for love – אהבה. It’s large, powerful and evocative; it reminds us that love is the A, B, C – “א, ב” of life, the beginning, the father אב, the parent of our finest impulses. It contains two references to the “ה” which is God Himself. It has both “בה” (blessed be Hashem) in it and “הב” (to give) because giving is the quintessence of love. Finally the placement of the statue is arresting: the sculpture is set on a hill overlooking a Jerusalem landscape and through the letters your hearts leaps at the buildings and clear sky of the sacred city. Love is the foundation of this city, the perspective of its people, and the basis of its Torah.