The Power of Love
The Jewish view of love.
Excerpted from What the Angel Taught You
- Has there ever been a greater mystery?
- Is there anyone who doesn't yearn to learn the secrets of love?
- Can a formula for love really be created?
- What do Judaism and the Bible say about love?
The first, and perhaps most puzzling thing we need to understand about love, is that Judaism does not treat love as an ideal, a conviction, a principle, a beautiful concept, or an untamed passion. It is an obligation. A duty. A responsibility. A requirement.
Yes, you may read that again. Despite everything you've ever seen, felt, heard, or believed about the splendor, allure, fascination, and magic of love – bottom line is – it's an obligation.
Now, don't get turned off. The fact that Judaism sees love as an obligation does not mean that it has no magic, allure, or fascination. It has all of that, and more! Love has an infinite amount of intrigue and power, but primarily it is an obligation.
Where does this come from? What does this mean?
Here is what the Bible says:
"You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge; you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God." (Leviticus 19:18)
Let us examine this key concept in greater depth and, in the process, we will uncover some of the greatest secrets in how to achieve a really successful and satisfying relationship.
God instructs, indeed commands us, to love each other. And while doing so, he surrounds the commandment with seemingly extraneous information. This prompts us to do what Jews do best – ask questions.
The above verse is one of over 5,000 verses in the Bible; and it is one of the most compelling. Read it again and see if you are bothered by the same perplexities that trouble us.
1) How can "love" possibly be an obligation? Either you love someone or you don't. Who ever heard of legislating an emotion?! It's not something you can obligate someone to do.
2) The same verse in the Bible that obligates us to love one another also says: "Don't take revenge and don't bear a grudge." What does taking revenge or bearing a grudge have to do with loving your neighbor? What are these commandments doing together in the same verse?
3) Why does the verse say, "…love your neighbor as yourself?" The Bible never uses extra words, so what is the phrase "as yourself" coming to add?
4) The original Hebrew words, ‘v'ahavta l'reacha,' which most often are translated in English as: "love your neighbor" should really be translated "love your friend." Why does the Bible refer to our neighbor as "friend?"
5) The verse ends with the words, "I am God." What does this have to do with loving your friend?
Answering these five questions, will give us the ingredients for a virtual treasure chest in our perpetual quest for understanding what love really is and how we can acquire it.
1) How is it possible to command "love"?
At first blush, the thought of obligating any emotion seems absurd, if not impossible. Demanding that someone "feel" anything appears to be totally antithetical to what sensations are all about. And yet, if God instructs us to so, it must be possible.
Consider the following example:
You have two children – a girl, 6 and a boy, age 9. One day you walk into the house and hear loud voices. Your son's voice is loudest, so naturally you summon him to the den.
"Hey…what's all the yelling about," you ask?
"I hate my sister," is the reply. "I hate her, hate her, hate her!!!"
What do you think your most likely response might be to this outburst?
"Well, I can understand that. If you hate her, you hate her. It's a feeling, so I guess it's O.K. What's for dinner tonight?"
You would do nothing of the sort! You'd probably say what most parents say at times like that:
"Don't talk that way! You have to love your sister!"
Whereupon he is likely to reply:
"But I'm only telling you the truth. You want me to lie? How can I love that little brat? I really hate her."
And in case you should inquire as to why he hates his sister, you may hear:
"Because she took the bigger piece of cake." Or, "She took my eraser without asking me." "She moved my chair." (You have to have kids to appreciate this.)
Now, if this goes on for long, you're likely to lose your temper. You won't stand for it. You'll say,
"That's the reason you hate your sister?! That's nonsense! You have to love your sister!"
You're not simply suggesting that the brother love his sister; you're demanding it. Between brothers and sisters, love is not something that's just preferable; it's something we expect. Nothing in the world should get in the way of their love.
So not only is demanding love not impossible, it's actually something that most of us are used to doing all the time. Moreover, it is precisely by accepting upon ourselves the obligation to love someone that we begin to understand the process of how to love.
Parents, even before their children are born, are naturally committed to loving their children, and are therefore determined to focus primarily on what is good about their child.
The real question is, however, how can we activate this process in all of our relationships -- to be able to love "at will"? In order to do that we need to become consciously aware of the dynamics which take place within a person who accepts the obligation to love.
The Jews vs. Cupid
To begin to understand this better, let's contrast the definition of love as seen by the Jewish People versus Western civilization's view of love. Judaism defines love as: the emotional pleasure a human being experiences when he understands and focuses on the virtues of another human being. The emotion of love, therefore, is overwhelmingly dependent upon how one views another person. If we choose to focus on a person's virtues, we will love them. If we choose to focus on their deficiencies, we will dislike them.
[Not as simple as it sounds, but not as complicated as you might think.]
This explains how the Bible can obligate us to love someone. The way we choose to view other people is completely within our control. To attain the feeling of love, the Bible obligates us to focus on another person's virtues. By extension, we will love them. And the more intimately we know someone and his virtues, the deeper our love will become. Western culture, on the other hand is heavily influenced by secular ideologies, in this case, the Greek concept of love – Cupid. You know the story. Cupid flits around with his wings, shoots a man and a woman with an arrow, and – presto! – they're in love.
This concept of love dominates the Western world. It deludes us into believing that love is a mystical "happening." You don't work on loving people. It either happens or it doesn't.
In Western consciousness, love is a stroke of "fate." There's no rhyme or reason. There's no effort involved. Love is not based on commitment or on any deep understanding of the person that you love.
In Greek style/American style love, two people "fall" in love and get married. They just "happen" to "fall" in love – as if they were victims. Loving someone is not really a a choice at all! So, if you want to stay married, all you can do is hope and pray that Cupid doesn't shoot you again! It's no surprise that this philosophy has produced a society with a divorce rate of over 50 %.
The Jewish outlook, on the other hand, is that love is based upon the understanding and appreciation of another's virtues. When people are truly committed to focusing on each other's virtues, they won't "fall" out of love. This is exactly why so few people completely abandon their kids.
Ask a parent:
"Did your children ever keep you up all night, whooping and coughing, and driving you batty?" "Yes." "Did you ever lose your temper and think, 'I'd love to strangle this little monster?'" "Well, occasionally, it did happen, I'm only human." "Do you still love your kids?" "Of course, I love my kids."
No parent ever gets up the next morning and says, "I'm not giving you breakfast because you kept me up last night."
We don't stop caring about our children just because they annoy us. We don't "fall out of love" with our kids, because we understand that loving our children isn't just a "happening." It's a responsibility that we are committed to from the time they're born. We know their virtues because as parents we accept the obligation to love them despite the aggravation.
If we would only carry that same commitment into to our marriages and friendships, we'd all be a lot better off.
2) How is not taking revenge and bearing a grudge related to love?
There are actually three separate commandments contained within one verse:
- Don't take revenge,
- Don't bear a grudge, and
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
Why are these three commandments in the same verse? What does one have to do with the other?
Their placement is not at all accidental or incidental. In juxtaposing these commands, the Bible is revealing yet another secret of how to love.
If you train yourself not to try to "even the score" by taking revenge, then you won't bother to remember things people do wrong to you and thus you won't be bearing a grudge. Then all that remains for you to focus on are the good things. Nothing negative will be holding you back from seeing the merits and loving the other person. In other words, the road is now clear for you to pay careful attention to perfecting the love formula – understanding and focusing on the virtues of another human being.
3) Why does the Bible verse command loving your neighbor "as yourself"?
Say you're slicing some Muenster cheese and you accidentally cut your finger, would you take revenge by grabbing the knife and cutting your other hand? After all, it was your other hand that perpetrated the offense, was it not??
Of course not. Your other hand is as much a part of you as anything else. Revenge would be insane!
When we learn to appreciate that we are all truly united, then hurting the other guy by "paying him back" is as ridiculous as hurting yourself. That's why the Bible says: Love your neighbor "as yourself." If I realize that the other guy and I are really part of the very same unit, then revenge is as silly as cutting my other hand with the knife.
Now, all this unity talk may sound to you like pie in the sky, but, in fact, this is what the Almighty really wants for us. This state of harmony somehow continues to elude us, and we, as a people, are sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of dissension and cacophony. It's sad.
More often than not, it takes conflict or war against a common enemy to bring this message home to the human race. History bears this out all too painfully.
You need look no further than the aftermath of the World Trade Center terror attack to see this point clearly. Citizens around the country, in short order, cast aside petty differences in favor of rallying around the President and democracy. Coalitions of every color, race, and creed imaginable formed on local, national, and international fronts. Political allegiance and previous bias were no match for the bourgeoning super-patriotism wrought upon us by our enemies. Such is the power of unity when we need it.
Similar phenomena have been recorded throughout time, as God must periodically resort to the most painful of avenues to bring the messages of togetherness to the fore. How much healthier and more prudent would it be, if only mankind learned this lesson on its own – without the agonizing Divine intervention.
Parents naturally relate this way to their children. No matter how badly children misbehave, parents don't stop loving them. Annoyance? Yes. Reprimand? Of course. But normal parents don't take revenge on their own children. They don't bear a grudge, because they relate to their children as an extension of themselves; so hurting our children is really hurting ourselves. Since parents don't desire revenge, they're able to forget the bad things and focus on the good. That's why it's easy for parents to love their children.
This very same dynamic can work with any relationship! With parents and children, the process is more instinctive. But when it comes to marriage, the potential for oneness is even greater! Unlike the parent/child affiliation, spouses actually choose each other, allowing for the prospects for enhanced unity to be even greater! But it does take a lot more work…naturally.
4) Why does the Bible refer to our fellow as "friend?"
The Hebrew word reacha, "your friend," conveys more accurately than "your neighbor" that we're really in this together; we're on the same side. And that's the feeling everyone should have about each other.
Of course, friendship, like love, is another theme that has been extensively reflected upon. And the two topics are inexorably connected to one another. Gaining a deeper understanding in the dynamics of friendship can also help us in our odyssey to know and attain real love.
The following two stories about friendship, taken from Jewish folk lore, lend clarity to the meaning of friendship and love. The first one helps us answer Question #4 – the second one helps us with the final question. Together they speak volumes about the ingredients of love and why God places such a premium on loving one another.
There was once a father and son who were discussing the topic of friendship.
The father said, "You know, son, it's tough to make friends."
The son said, "What do you mean, Dad? I have lots of friends." "How many friends do you have," the father asked?
The son thought for a long while and said, "I've counted them up. I must have 200 friends!" (and this is pre-Facebook!)
"200 friends? A young man like you?" said the father. "That's amazing. I can't believe it."
"Why, Dad? How many friends do you have?"
"Me? My whole life I've worked really hard at it and I've only achieved half a friend."
"But Dad, everybody likes you. You're a wonderful man. What are you talking about – only a half a friend? And what is half a friend, anyway?"
"Look son, you have to know whether your friends are really your friends. A friend in need is a friend in deed. Why don't you test it out and see if your friends are really friends?"
The father had an idea. Being that this story may have taken place during the Roman occupation of Israel, over 2000 years ago, you need to know that the Romans were especially stringent in law and order. If they caught a murderer or a thief, they'd mete out swift and harsh judgment. And they did the same to anyone thought to be an accomplice to the crime. They meant business.
"Here's what you do," the father suggested. "A goat's blood resembles human blood. Take a goat, slaughter it and put it in a sack. Then at night, go to your friends and say, 'You've got to help me. I went to a bar last night and had a little too much to drink. There was a guy there who started insulting me and we got into an argument. He took a swing at me, I took a swing back at him, the fight rolled into the street, and I hit him a little too hard and killed him. Now I've got to get rid of the body. Otherwise I'm a dead duck.' Then ask your friends to help you get rid of the body."
The son thought it was a great idea and he tried it out. Night after night, he took the sack of goat meat around to all his friends. It took him a couple of weeks and a few goats, but he got through his 200 friends.
As you might guess, not one wanted anything to do with him. They understood that he wasn't responsible, that the other fellow started the fight, but they didn't want any part of it.
Finally, the son came back to his father and said, "Dad, I guess you're right. My friends aren't such good friends. How about your half-a-friend? Maybe he'll help."
The father said, "Sure, try him out. Go to his house, and tell him you're Chaim's son. Tell him what happened, and see whether he helps you."
That night the son knocked at his father's friend's door.
"Who's there?" a frightened voice asked.
"It's Chaim's son."
"Oh, Chaim's son! Come in. What can I do for you?"
The son told him the whole story about the bar and the fight and the body.
"Well, really, I shouldn't help you, but what can I do, you're Chaim's son?"
He took the boy out in the backyard. They dug a hole and buried the sack.
"Now go back home. Stay out of the bars. If somebody insults you, just keep quiet. But most of all, forget you ever met me."
The son went back to his father and said, "Dad, why do you call him a half-a-friend? He's the only one who helped me!"
"What did he say to you?"
"He said, 'Really I shouldn't help you, but you're Chaim's son, what can I do?'"
"That's half a friend," said the father. "Somebody who pauses and says, 'Really I shouldn't do this.' That's a half a friend."
"Then Dad, what's a real friend?"
So, his father told him this next story (cited in Shtei Yados) which will help us answer our last question.
5) Why does the verse end with "I am God"?
Two young men had grown up together and become very close friends. They were living at a time when the Roman Empire was split into two parts – one half controlled by an emperor in Rome and the other half ruled by an emperor in Syria. After each of the friends married, one moved to Rome and the other moved to Syria. Together they started an import-export business, and though they lived far apart, they remained very close friends.
One time, when the fellow from Rome was visiting in Syria, someone accused him of being a spy for Rome and plotting against the emperor. He was an innocent man – it was just a vicious rumor. So, they brought him to the Syrian Emperor, and he was subsequently sentenced to death.
When he was being led out to his execution, he was asked if he had any last requests. The accused man pleaded: "Please, I'm an innocent man, but I can't prove it. So, if I'm going to die, at least let me go back to Rome first, settle my affairs, and say goodbye to my family. They don't know my business, like who owes me money, where all my goods are. Let me just go back to Rome, put my affairs in order, and then I'll come back and you can execute me."
The Emperor laughed at him. "What are you, crazy? You think we'd let you go? What possible guarantee will we have that you're going to come back?"
The Jew said, "Wait. I have a friend here in Syria who will stand in for me. He'll be my guarantor. If I don't come back, you can kill him instead."
The Emperor was intrigued. "This I've got to see. Okay, bring in your friend."
The fellow from Syria was called in. Sure enough, he agreed without hesitation to take the Roman Jew's place in prison, and to be killed in his stead if the friend did not return.
The Emperor was so startled by this arrangement that he agreed to let the Roman Jew go. "I'll give you 60 days. Put your affairs in order. If you're not back by the dawn of the 60th day, your friend is dead."
Off went the Roman Jew, racing back to his family to say goodbye and to put his affairs in order. After a lot of tears and goodbyes, he started back in plenty of time before the 60 days were up.
These were the days of sailing galleys, and sometimes you could sit for days waiting for the right wind to come up. As luck would have it, there was no wind for several days, the sailboat was delayed, and by the time the Jew arrived in Syria, dawn of the 60th day was breaking.
As agreed, the jailers took out the fellow from Syria for the execution. In those days, an execution was a gala affair, and early in the morning the crowds began to gather. Finally, as they were just about to perform the execution, the fellow from Rome came running in. "Wait! Stop! I'm back. Don't kill him. I'm the real prisoner!"
The executioner let the fellow from Syria go and was about to take the Jew from Rome in his place. "Wait a minute," the reprieved guarantor argued. "You can't kill him. His time limit was up. I'm the guarantor. You've got to kill me instead!"
The two friends were equally adamant. "Kill me instead!" "No, kill me!" The executioner didn't know what to do. The crowd was in an uproar, watching them fight it out.
Finally, the Emperor stepped in. In wonder and amazement, he turned to the two of them and said, "I'll let both of you go free on one condition. That you make me your third friend!"
That's friendship. That's true unity.
That's why the same verse that says, "Love your neighbor," also says "I am God." Unity and friendship among God's children is so precious that God says, so to speak, "If you love each other, I want to be your third friend." That means if we're united, we have the power of God behind us.
Unity is so precious to God that even when we are not as good as we should be, our unity allows us to achieve far more than any one holy, talented, or great individual could possibly achieve alone. In sports, we call it, "teamwork." Teams with unusual selflessness and chemistry often topple opponents with greater raw skill and power.
In life, we call it "love."
We see examples of this in Jewish history. Ahab – despite the fact that he was an evil king – was more successful in battle than any other king the Jewish people ever had. Why? Because he benefited from exceptional unity among the Jewish populace. God granted the Jews military success, despite the sinister intentions of their leader. Unity is the quality God wants most for all His children. Simply put, when we are united, God is our "third friend."
Infighting and strife amongst us is therefore our most insidious and debilitating enemy. Disharmony prevents us from being a predominant force, and reduces us to an impotent collection of self-absorbed individuals.
If we're united, the Almighty is with us. If we're divided, we're on our own.
It's called, "the power of Love."