Thursday, April 18, 2013

Love: Theme and Variation

According to tradition there are 613 commandments in the Torah. They pertain to everything from the way we plant our fields to our style of dress and from the way we make war to the rites of divorce. No sphere of life seems outside the perview of a Torah mandate. The Torah provides a total life discipline. What's surprising is that not only does the Torah govern behaviors. It also sets expectations for our feelings.On the holidays we are commanded to be happy. In our relationship with G-d we are called upon to feel fear. And in three different relationships the Torah calls on us to love. One is found in the Book of Devarim and is part of the Sh'ma. "And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul and all your might." The second two are in the readings of this week in the parsha of Kedoshim. The first reads, "...and you shall love your neighbor as your self." And the second "If a stranger shall live in your land don't antagonize him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be no different than a citizen for you and you shall love him like yourself, because you too were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am Hashem your G-d."

Love of G-d. Love of our neighbor. Love of the stranger. Three commandments to love. Each a call to the same emotion. Yet each challenging us in a very different way. Let's explore the call to love in its variety in both its expectations and limitations.

The first love is the love we are meant to have for G-d. Note the verse which challenges us to this love only tells us the extent of the love. It does not tell us the way it is to be expressed. We are called upon to love Hashem with all of who we are and posess. Nothing is to be held back. But how we express that love must be on G-d's terms, not ours! Indeed the Torah gives us the means whereby to express that love. It provides us with the mitzvot. It would be inappropriate to express my total love for G-d by causing myself harm even if I am doing so to show my love. I am not free to decide for myself what my love for G-d will look like. G-d is not like us. We can adore Him but never know Him, except what He chooses to show us in His Torah. To presume that He will find whatever we choose to do a loving gesture is to make an assumption that is not loving at all. We can each have an authentic feeling of love in our own way. But acts of love are always dependent on the will and desire of the one we love. A loving act is defined by the one being loved not by the lover!

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself". We are each charged with the responsibility to love our fellow Jew. Here the Torah does not tell us we must love another with all of our heart, all of our soul and all of our might. The Torah does not expect or even desire that we give ourselves away to another the way we are mandated to give ourselves away with a total love for Hashem. On the contrary the Torah puts limits on the love. We are to love another not more than ourselves. If we give ourselves away to someone else, or make them the center of our life, we have misunderstood our call. Moerover if we do not sufficiently love ourselves for who we are, instead prefering to love and idolize someone else, who we see as more worthy, we have compromised the love and corrupted the mitzvah.

And finally we come to the love of the stranger. Surely the hardest love is to love someone who is different from us. Typically, inorder to love someone, we look to find points in common. The stranger lives on the margins. S/he does not belong. What we will often think to do to foster a love for them is to invite them into our world, make them guests in our home or synagogue. We reach out to the stranger inorder to include them in our world, indeed to make them no stranger at all. That approach would be in keeping with our earlier commandment to love our neighbor like ourselves. But that is not exactly what the Torah asks of us here. While the verse that calls on us to love a fellow Jew and the one that impels us to love a stranger have the same key phraseology, the latter has an additional caveat.
It concludes "...for you were strangers in the land of Egypt..." From my understanding the Torah is not just telling us why we should love the stranger. After all no one in many a millenia can recall being a stranger in Egypt. No, the Torah is instead telling us how to love the stranger. We are not meant to love him/her the way we love our neighbor, by inviting them into our life and care, by including them in our world. No, the love for the stranger is different. To love them we are called upon to enter their world. We are asked by Hashem to remember what is means to be marginalized and share the struggle with them.

Truth is we cannot make a stranger not a stranger by sharing a meal with them in our home. The poor, the sick, the convert, do not become no longer marginalized by a single act of inclusiveness no matter how spectacular the gesture. A stranger remains a stranger. To love the stranger is not to take their mind off that reality or pretend it is not so. On the contrary, the work of loving the stranger is to find a way to enter their world, to again be a stranger ourselves. How you ask? Well when we visit the sick and they are afraid of the consquences of their illness we too need to find the fear in our own lives and join them. Its no good in most cases to project strength and simply say "be unafraid like me". When we are talking to someone who is unemployed we would do well to share our own journey of life instability so as to join them on the margins, rather than project security and let them taste our success. Tellng another who is struggling of our triumphs may include them for a brief moment in our story, but the work of loving the stranger begs of us that we enter their story, that they be less alone, less estranged!

At one level it might be said love is always love. Yet the Torah commands we love in three different mitzvot. Each mitzva presents us with its own unique challenge. In the love of Hashem we need forever be careful lest we set the form the love takes instead of leaving it to G-d. In the love of another we need be oh so careful to set the limits on the love lest we give ourselves away in the guise of love and compromise it. In the love of the stranger we need to realize that we need to first become a stranger ourselves inorder to love another the way the other needs to be loved to mitigate their sense of aloneness.

Yes, love is a feeling. But it is also a work. To learn to love well is the challenge of a lifetime.

Shabbat Shalom

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