I’ve been thinking about love lately. For a variety of reasons, but not least of which is a conversation in a class about the Jewish approach to happiness. That class made me think about what the word “love” in Hebrew — “ahav” as a verb and “ahava” as a noun — actually means. I wanted to see what the nuances behind this word were, and if there was an understanding behind it that is different than its current meaning.
So I went to the Torah. There is a concept that we can learn the meanings of a given word from the contexts in which it is used in the Torah, particularly the first instance of the word. The first time that the word “love” is used is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, saying, “Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac…”.
In his commentary on that verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the word ahava means “to give” and refers to “the active personality — mean[ing]: both to give oneself up to another and to seek to draw the other exceedingly close to oneself; that is, to strive to attain a most intimate association with someone.”
The opposite of ahav, writes Rabbi Hirsch, is sana or sin’a, which means “to be a thorn, to fend off the other and keep him as far away from oneself as possible.” These antonyms are polarized. “For ahava, another’s presence is required; for sin’a, his complete removal is desired.”
This concept of love as giving and receiving one’s presence makes sense within the context of the parent-child relationship, as was the case with Abraham and Isaac. But it also rings true for the myriad of other situations in which love is called for. The Torah commands us to love God, our friends, and strangers from outside our nation, whether they be converts or not. In fact, this level of intimacy can even be applied to inanimate objects; after all, the Torah uses the word “love” when describing the delicacies that Esau brings to his father Isaac.
While each of these bonds requires love, they are all clearly different. One cannot and should not treat God, their spouse, their child, their friend, and their favorite food the same way. Love is just the common ground between these relationships, which can all flower differently if we treat their respective seeds in the right ways.
Having established a baseline understanding of love, I wondered about the notion of a romantic relationship. So I turned to the second place in which the Torah uses the word “love” — when Rebekah and Isaac first meet. The story of that fateful meeting begins when Rebekah sees Isaac from afar, and the sight of him knocks her off her camel. She quite literally falls for him.
After Abraham’s servant Eliezer tells Isaac about Rebecca’s actions in her hometown, Isaac “took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.” Rabbi Hirsch comments on the ordering of the words in this verse, suggesting that at first glance the whole thing seems backwards.
“In modern life we would place ‘he loved her’ first, and write: ‘He loved Rebekah, he took her, and she became his wife.’ But, however important it is that love shall precede marriage, it is far more important that it shall continue after marriage. The modern attitude lays all the stress on the romance before marriage; the olden Jewish view emphasizes the life-long devotion and affection after marriage.”
There is a trope in modern romance about love at first sight, but this verse appears to negate that concept. Here, the Torah suggests that love is a process, not a moment. The surge of positive emotions we feel after first seeing someone is important, of course. Attraction, connection, and taking time with someone are building blocks for love, but love is none of them individually. “Love” at first sight isn’t love; it’s just you getting knocked off your camel.
As Rabbi Hirsch intimates, it is important that love precede marriage, but this verse does not really discuss the spark of love that comes during the initial stages of a relationship. Rather it talks about the deepening of love that occurs over time, after taking someone into your life and marrying them. More to the point, it emphasizes the importance of love, but does not discuss how to love someone. For that, I turned to another verse and yet another type of love: the relationship between man and God.
The Torah states that “you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your animating spirit, and with all your meod.” This last term is unusual because meod is typically an adverb, rather than a noun. Its normal meaning is “very.” This is the context in which the word is first used in the Torah, back at the beginning of Genesis, when the Torah describes God’s creations as “tov meod” or “very good.”
Rabbi Hirsch writes on that verse in Genesis that “[a]s a noun, meod denotes the whole range of means and powers available to a person; in other words: material assets. When meod is used as an adverb, the word that is modified is considered in its whole extent and impact — i.e. to the highest degree.”
The word meod indicates that we should view the world not as an amalgamation of individual parts and moments, but rather as an integrated whole. It also suggests that we should view the ones we love as more than merely the sum of their parts, physical or otherwise.
However, our Sages in the commentary text Bereishit Rabbah add another layer of meaning to this term. They define meod in a negative context, as “afflictions” and the inclination toward misdeeds, the metaphorical “devil on our shoulders.”
“Such phenomena appear to be afflictions, but the truth of the matter is that they bring us salvation. Through them, all the good in creation is revealed; good, which is not merely ‘good,’ but beyond: it is ‘very good,’” writes Rabbi Hirsch.
“It is pleasant for me to bear suffering today, provided that I am wiser for and ennobled by it in the future; it is pleasant for me to suffer for the good of the community, which shares my burden with me. Suffering is beloved to me during my seventy earthly years, which are but a drop from a bucket in the ocean of eternity that awaits me.”
This holistic approach to the universe — and, by extension, the human condition — transforms any event or outcome into a positive experience, even if we initially perceive it in the moment as negative.
This mindset of valuing the negative applies to love as well. The elements of a person that we perceive as negative today are the ones we miss most once they are gone. A good example of this phenomenon comes from the movie Good Will Hunting.
In the film, a therapist named Sean, played by Robin Williams, treats the eponymous Will Hunting, a brilliant but troubled young man played by Matt Damon. Sean tells Will about how Sean’s dead wife used to fart in her sleep, and the two share a laugh about it. Sean describes these little “idiosyncrasies” and “peccadillos” as the things he misses the most about her.
“People call these things imperfections, but they’re not. Aw, that’s the good stuff,” Sean advises Will. The word “meod” encapsulates this mentality. We can love someone through the imperfections that we initially perceive in them. We learn to value what we once thought was negative. As a relationship blossoms, we learn to cherish the meod in our significant others. When that relationship is gone, we miss the meod the most.
I’m not a rabbi; I’m just some guy with a few books and a brain. But here’s what I think about Jewish love.
In our tradition, love is reciprocal. It is a give-and-take. It is a desire to bring someone close to you and to sacrifice a part of yourself in the process.
In our tradition, love is a process, not a moment. We may fall in love the way we fall off our camels, but it is what we do after we have gotten to know a person that defines the love that we have for them.
In our tradition, we love with our hearts, our physicalities, and our imperfections. All of them. Attraction and affection make way for love once we discover and cherish the idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of the ones with whom we share ourselves. It may take time but the relationships that make it there are the ones worth having.