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Love is a Skeleton Key

September 11, 2022 | by Rabbi Adam Jacobs

Love: the strangest and most profound human experience.

Love is a funny thing. Even though most people view it as one of the most important aspects of their lives, they have a tough time defining it. Poets and painters have labored to capture and express its essence through their arts. Scientists and sociologists have probed it, endeavoring to explain its origin and purpose - all with questionable results.

How can we be so confused about something so fundamental to the human experience?

Love is at the root of our most precious relationships, craved in all times and in all places, and, strangely, it’s a bottomless pit that can never be filled. There never will come a time when we say, "Ah, I've had the last interaction I'll ever need with this person." Even if we lived 1000 years, it wouldn't be enough. If only our beloved could be here just a little longer.

That's why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What is this thing called love?
— Cole Porter

There are those who suggest that love is a chemical illusion created by the brain and "designed" by evolution to promote the survival of our species.

If that’s the case, evolution did a pretty lousy job. If anything, love is a great hindrance to us. It causes us to make crazy and rash decisions (Romeo and Juliet), to have fewer offspring so that we can pay more attention to each one, and to lay down our lives – often for the weaker, less-viable portions of the population.

Other life forms do a perfectly fine job of reproducing in a loveless manner – salmon do not carry a torch for "the one that got away," and mosquitoes do not endlessly pine for their departed fore-bearers as there's nothing productive in that. Love seems to be something quite different.

The film Interstellar has a fantastic scene in which two astronauts (Cooper and Brand) are trying to pick which world to explore for possible life as the Earth was slowly dying. With limited time and resources, the decision was critical — but how to make it? Brand was in love with another astronaut who had preceded them to one of the planets and had placed himself in a state of hibernation. She suggested that love was enough of a guide to choose that world:

COOPER: It [love] means social utility — child rearing, social bonding.

BRAND: We love people who've died … where's the social utility in that? Maybe it means more – something we can't understand yet. Maybe it's some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can't consciously perceive. I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen for a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't yet understand it.

These lines, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, are profound. Perhaps love, the prime directive of all human life, the un-useful yet massively powerful force, is not part of this physical world at all. If so, then perhaps it is the only way to remain connected to those who have departed this material existence — and the only hope of plugging the desperate, insatiable hole that opens whenever true love is generated between two people.

Perhaps love, the prime directive of all human life, the un-useful yet massively powerful force, is not part of this physical world at all.

In his book "Judaism: a Way of Being" David Gelernter outlines the Jewish concept of human separation from the spiritual realm. We are blocked from accessing it directly though we can come as close as we like – our noses almost pressed against the surface – to discern its contours and to make inferences about what lies just beyond. The veil both separates and connects but only one thing in this universe is capable of creating that connection beyond the veil - love. Love is the key that unlocks "the other side."

Only one thing can penetrate the veil. 'The People of Israel are beloved,' says the Talmud…God is hidden like the mezuzah text, separated from Israel by a sacred screen that is like a bridal veil — opaque except to love.

Love is the key that unlocks "the other side."

Loving the Dead

What about our dead who we miss so dearly and the love of them which can never be requited? In truth, they are not so very far away — they are separated from us by only a thin screen. In describing her near-death experience, Sharon Stone gestured in front of her and said, "[the other world] is so close. It's right here."

In Gelernter's words:

When someone dies…we ask that God grant the departed "perfect peace beneath the wings of God's presence." We ask that the departed be gathered to God's side beyond the veil. The phrase recalls cherubim's wings screening the Ark of the Covenant, curtains screening the Holy of Holies, Moses' veil…or the blanket spread over a sleeping child on a cold night. Judaism has developed many doctrines about death over the millennia, but the simplest and deepest is this: our dead are beyond the veil – which is opaque, inviolable, and impenetrable, except by love.

In what ways should this knowledge affect us? The generation and enhancement of love between individuals is conceivably the single most significant activity a person can engage in. Most cultures and religious systems acknowledge this – few of us follow through. How many of us proactively worked on this today, the day before, or ever?

Nonetheless, it is part of the definition of a successful and fulfilling life. How many of us are consciously engaged in it? What is our plan to carry it out? The good life requires teaching ourselves how to love. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote:

I'm going to talk with you about love today, which is life and death; it is all the same thing. If you live well, you will never have to worry about dying. You can do that even if you only have one day to live. The question of time is not very important; it is a man-made, artificial concept anyway. To live well means basically to learn to love.

Love is the unique property of existence that is capable of creating eternal, soul-level bonding that can never be extinguished by distance, time, or death itself.

Dedicated in loving memory to Dovid ben Beryl




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