The fifth Aliyah of this week’s Parsha, discusses the scenario of a man who takes a wife and later becomes dissatisfied with her due to an unseemly moral matter. The process of divorce is outlined, highlighting the graveness of such a decision. The woman, having left her first husband, remarries another man. However, if this second marriage also ends in divorce or the husband dies, the original husband cannot take her back as his wife. At first glance, this passuk seems to deal primarily with marital relationships, but when we dig deeper, we realize that it speaks to the broader theme of connection in all relationships.
In marriage, the message is clear: it must be built upon mutual respect, understanding, and care. It’s a reminder that mutual interests alone are insufficient. Just as a man cannot unilaterally take back a wife who has experienced failed subsequent relationships, we learn that the foundation of love cannot be rebuilt on one-sided affection. Love flourishes when both partners contribute, forging a shared path that stands strong against life’s challenges.
But what constitutes real and true love? A story is told about the Rebbe from Kotzke who came across a young man enjoying a fish dish and inquires, “Why are you eating that fish?” The young man responds, “Because I love fish.” The rebbe counters (paraphrasing), “If you love fish, why remove it from the water, end it’s life, and fry it? You don’t love the fish; you love yourself. You enjoy its taste, so you’ve taken it out of its element for your own satisfaction.” Much of what’s often termed “real love” is, in fact, “fish love,” where one selects a partner based on their fulfillment of personal needs, whereas the other person in the relationship is simply the vehicle for one’s own personal gratification. So, what is real love?
Says Rabbi Twersky in the name of Rabbi Dessler; people make a serious mistake in thinking that you give to those that you love. In actuality, it’s the complete opposite; you love to those that you give. How does that work? When you give to someone, you invest a part of yourself in them. Given our inherent self-love, that part becomes what you love in the other person. This makes true love an act of giving, because when you give, you nourish that part of you that you love in them (Incidentally, when I hear from people that date for a week or two and say that they are “in love”, this is all too often “fish love,” not true love, as genuine love is built through giving over time. This explains why enduring couples married for decades often possess deeper bonds – the extended timeframe offers more opportunities for giving. Consult a couple married for over 40 years to understand this better.)
Returning to our Parsha, divorce is uniquely marked by taking. Reclaiming a new and different lifestyle, receiving monetary assets, children – these are acts of taking, not giving. And where there’s only taking, genuine love is absent; it’s replaced by “fish love,” where affection centers around what one gains from the other. The prohibition of reuniting with a divorced partner might stem from the realization that their love foundation rests on self rather than giving and is therefore forbidden.
All too often in relationships, be it in marriage or friendship, there is an unspoken “score”, where one only reciprocates after they have received. This, however, often leads to “relationship chicken”, where each side waits for the other side to act. This is not authentic love.
As we reflect on Parshat Ki Teitzei and its message of being an unconditional giver, let us internalize the importance of building relationships that stand the test of time. Let’s strive to make our friendships, loves and affections, by recognizing that true connection is rooted in being a giver. In doing so, we will become architects of meaningful connections and ambassadors of endless love.