Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Limits of Love

The Vilna Gaon is reputed to have remarked that the most difficult mitzvah for him to observe was the Torah's call that on the Chag of Sukkot we be "only happy" and for seven days! For me the most difficult mitzvah is found in this weeks parsha of Re'eh. Let me share the passage in the Torah.

"If your brother the son of your mother or your son or your daughter or the wife you love or your friend who is like your own soul entices you in secret saying.
'let us go and serve other gods' which neither you nor your fathers have known of the gods of the peoples around you whether near you or far off from you, even from the one end of the earth or the other. You should not consent to him, nor listen to him, nor should you have compassion on him, nor should you spare him or conceal him. Rather you should kill him, your hand being the first to put him to death and after the hands of all the people.You should stone him to death because he made effort to draw you away from the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

There are several mitzvot that devolve from these verses in the Torah. But in essence they amount to the same call. If someone tries to get us to commit idolatry, even in secret, no matter how close we are to them, no matter how much we love them, even if they are our own children, even if they beg us for mercy, we must turn them in and even participate in the death they receive for their crime, throwing the first stone.

I must admit I cannot imagine turning my child in for the crime of being a 'mayseet', the term in Hebrew for someone who attempts to seduce us into idolatry. Of course its a grievous crime, but for me to bring about the death of my own child! S/he spoke to me in secret. It would be so easy to let it slide especially if s/he begs for mercy and forgiveness. I find the Torah's challenge to me almost impossible to keep.

Yet I think we need to explore the mitzvah for the messages it imparts. First its important to note that the Torah insists that we turn in the 'mayseet' not because of his/her perversion. Rather the Torah demands we turn him/her in because of the harm s/he attempted to cause us. Its because G-d loves and wants our wellbeing even more than we do that He demands the we care for ourselves and get the influences that threaten us out of our lives. One needs to hear in the core challenge of the mitzvah how much our G-d wants for our spiritual health and that we not do anything to jeapordize our rightful place with Him.

Still more I hear the message to me in a very personal way. In telling us that no matter how much we care about the seducer and love him/her we must not show them any mercy even to the point of participating in their death, G-d is teaching us the limits of love. We can love another, indeed we must love another. Yet that love of the other can never be at the expense of the love of ourselves. If loving another compromises our self-love then its not only not noble. It's wrong!
The Sages state it very simply "if one needs to choose, either your life or your friends life, your life takes preference." It is simply not okay to love someone else if that love brings about harm for us.

I can think of any number of real life situations that relate to the above. The woman who is married to the abusive husband who keeps doing violence to her in either words or deeds and then begging her for forgiveness, she stays with him excusing her behavior as love for her husband. In keeping with the values learned from the laws of the 'mayseet', taking back her husband is misplaced love. He is harming her. He does not warrant her love or compassion. Her love for herself must take precedence. Taking him back is not only not a noble self sacrifice, its wrongful and dare I say a sin!

But their are so many cases where we might apply the values the Torah imparts. The older son who comes home and in his callousness violates the spirit of our Shabbat. Yes, we need to love our son, but not at the expense of giving up the Shabbat spirit that is so vital to us. We need to keep him close and show our love. He can come and should come any other day or agree not to publicaly desecrate the Shabbat in our home. We must put love for ourselves and our needs first, the exception being young and dependent children whose needs come before our own.

And what about the parent who wants us to pursue a certain career path,one that would make them happy but would compromise our sense of what we are meant to do and what would make us happy. Its not heroic to fullfil the dreams of our parents at the cost of our happiness and fulfillment. We need to put ourselves first. Not because we want to but because this is what G-d wants us to do.

The situations are endless. The principle is the same. G-d wants us to put the love of ourselves above the love for any other save our love of Him. At times that's not as easy as it seems. Yet that it can be difficult doesn't make it less important. On the contrary it underscores its importance for the quality of the life G-d wants for us.

Shabbat Shalom

No comments:

Post a Comment