Ah, love! Beautiful, wonderful love. “What’s love got to do with it anyway?” A question once asked by a singer and many times by people. This, in the Jewish readings, is the season for love. (Yes, I know it’s supposed to be in spring – but Jews have always been a bit weird, and really, for those of us in northern climates where the snow just started to fall – it gives us something to do and talk about in the cold evenings.) These are the weeks where we read about Isaac falling in love at first sight, when we hear about Jacob sacrificing 14 years of his life for love, where Rachel and Leah compete for Jacob’s love. We read about broken love – love that didn’t go well between parents and children, love that didn’t go well between husbands and wives, love that didn’t go well between children. We read about qualities that are loveable – beauty and kindness, cleverness and strength, loyalty and faith.
What does love mean? I’m a fairly literal person – I like definitions. So, I didn’t like the one my friends in High School gave me when I asked them what they meant when they said ‘I’m in love.’ “Well, you know – love – it’s what you feel – when you, you know, like, love someone. You like them a lot. You … you just love them. When you feel it, you’ll know.” Irritating definition! Yes, it’s a bit like the biblical one which describes sex as knowing someone. Knowledge of self and other on an ever-deepening level? Is that love? I was not convinced.
The definition I picked was one from a book. To love someone meant that their happiness was essential to one’s own. This seemed to jibe with my experience. The more I loved someone, the more their happiness affected me – when they were happier, I was and I really didn’t feel good about the world in which they were sad. Kids, friends, beloveds – here was a definition that to different extent described how I felt about them, and I knew what to call love.
Was it Jewish though? I had often talked about Judaism as being different, because instead of being commanded to love your icky, difficult great-aunt Thelma, you were simply commanded to be polite to her, to treat her decently, to take care of her. Your emotions were your problem – your actions mattered. Yet, love is very important in Jewish writing. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is, literally, the central commandment in the Jewish Torah scroll. Various rabbis have indicated that it is the basis of the Torah. Some have defined God as being perfect love. (An excellent definition of God, by the way.) So what is this love that is valued so highly by Jewish writers? How does it match with my definition of love?
I was not particularly shocked to discover that the Jewish definition of love had little to do with feeling. It seems to be a combination of knowledge and action. Knowledge: we love when we see God in another. By perceiving the divine, the ideal, the true – we realize that we are looking at an embodiment of love, and we love that person. Action: love is giving without taking. It’s a beautiful definition. I found it this morning and I have been delighted with it since. Love is giving without taking. Now, you can love your Aunt Thelma even if she squicks you out. All you have to do is give, without taking.
At the same time, in Torah Study, we are discussing sacrifice. You know, giving without taking. Of course, there it was all messy and bloody and animals being killed and ick – but if you look beyond the goriness, the point seems to be that it’s the gift that matters, the giving up of something expensive (affordable – one should not give more than one has for love – but expensive to one) and important for the sake of another. This allows a new way for me to evaluate my relationships. Do I love so & so? Am I willing to give to her without taking something from her?
Of course, that doesn’t mean without accepting gifts! Accepting and taking are different and accepting is essential for otherwise the other person can’t give. But taking – demanding, stealing, removing – all these are the connotations of taking. If something is given, it cements relationship, if taken it weakens and breaks it. There are so many ways to ask this question. Am I giving privacy? Am I taking away serenity? Am I giving companionship? Am I taking time and energy? It’s not a simple definition – it gives rise to endless questions and decisions – but it is a beautiful one.
So, love. Measured in happiness and gift, knowledge and recognition, sacrifice and acceptance, a crazy involved practice with no clear meaning, but one of such supreme importance that loving is the best way we can emulate God. Exploring it tells me how much more there is for me to do. There are many people whom I could love better. By listening more, by paying more careful attention, by seeing clearer and by thinking kinder, I can change how I know them to see the divine image within them. I can let go of expectations and demands and take less from those I love. And always, I can work just a bit harder and pray just a bit more fervently, think just a little bit more and put my wants to the side more to truly give, and by giving truly, truly love.