Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reflections On Loving

What does it mean to be able to love another? Surely most of us would say that to the person of character what the other looks like should not really matter. I mean, if we really are persons of depth and substance then we would focus on the inner qualities of the person we are meeting not how pretty his/her face, how much he/she weighs, or even perhaps his/her age...right?

I once had a friend who when single was asked with whom he might like to be fixed-up. He said that to him it did not matter what the potential date looked like, only her character was important.
Wow I thought. If only I could be that way...not focused on the shallowness of the outer form but only the inner beauty. After-all don't we sing every Friday night the words of King Solomon from Mishle "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, the woman who is G-d fearing is the one to be praised."

Yet I like many of you both single and even married remain attracted on the basis of appearance. The Talmud is full of laws designed to make sure that the wife does not become ugly to her husband. And I suspect that its a deep and prevailing secret between many a husband and wife that the loss of the spark for physical intimacy between them has its roots in one, the other, or both losing the physical features they had at the time they were married.

This Shabbat we are challenged to the mitzva to love a fellow Jew. The verse of v'ahavta l'raiacha kamocha, "love thy neighbour as thyself". Its interesting that the mitzva to love another, while according to Rabbi Akiva a central mitzva of the Torah, does not even commence the verse it is found in. Rather the posuk begins " and you shall take no revenge neither in deeds nor in words (meaning we can't even say to another that I will not be like you but rather be kind and generous to you) from any of your people..." and then continues with the challenge to love your neighbour as yourself.

The message is clear. We are not mandated to some abstract love of humanity nor even to simply love the stranger, though that too is found in the Torah. We are called upon to love those we know and who have been mean to us, the person who refused do us the kindness we asked for, the person who scorned us, the one we have every right to want to take revenge on. Its him/her we are called up to, not only not take the revenge we are entitled to, but to engage with love!

We are called upon by the Torah to love even those we might by right hate. I mean loving someone who is nice to us is easy. For that there is no special reward anymore than for loving our children. To love someone who, if not for the Torah command, we would reject or even despise that is our mandate and challenge. And that is the great principle of the Torah according to Rabbi Akiva.

The Talmud provides a fascinating and, at first blush, surprising application of the requirement to love our neighbor as our-self. The Talmud teaches " a person may not have intercourse with his wife during the daytime hours....lest he see her physical form and find something not to his liking and she become ugly to him."

I must admit on thinking about that teaching I was floored. First, I thought, this isn't a strange woman he is having intercourse with, its his wife! How can her physical form whether she has gained weight or grown wrinkles effect his love for her. He lives with her, they share a home, children, a world built together. Can a man be so shallow as to feel repulsed by his wife just because he body type changed?

And still more, I would have thought the mitzva to love a friend would have led to a different conclusion. Rather than forbid intercourse during the daytime because of a husbands potential rejection, it should have mandated the husband to love his wife no matter what she look like.
Instead of challenging him (as his wife might do!), the Torah excuses his clearly shallow feelings and seeks to accommodate them.

As troubling as the Talmudic teaching is it seems to be revealing an important truth. My friend in the earlier part of the write-up was unusual. Most people are attracted on the basis of appearance. And even if its a shallow measure, it remains a truth that cannot be expected to be changed. Just as a person enjoys certain foods and not others, likes certain colors more than others, etc what attracts us is part of who we are. I can be called upon to treat with love every person, even one who has harmed me. But I cannot be expected to feel attraction or desire for someone no matter how deserving! Desire cannot be governed by law or even, for that matter, logic!

I know these thought may arouse some sentiments in you. They can feel personal. How many of us have felt it was unfair that we were rejected both in our marriages and in relationships on the basis of superficial values. We have a legitimate argument. But one that only proves life is unfair.
What we sing in Eishet Chayil about beauty being vain etc is absolutely true. But as the Rabbis would say we still need to turn out the lights!

Mazal Tov on the Medina's 61st!!!! Chag Samayach and Shabbat Shalom!

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