Love least likely

"In the most important love verse in the Torah, love is not a feeling or an emotion. It has nothing to do with romance. Love is in the details."

AEPoupko image

What is love anyway? Is it like poetry, which you cannot define, but know when you see it?

The entire Torah has only two cases of romantic love: Isaac and Rebecca (but only after they've been married), and Jacob and Rachel, love at first sight.

There are about 250 uses of the word ahava -love-in all of TaNaKh. Approximately 15 of those references describe a love relationship between two persons: husband and wife, parent and child, in one or two cases friends, and in one case, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. All other uses of love are either inspirations to love justice and righteousness or the stranger, or indictments of ancient Israel for loving false gods and bad attitudes and behaviors.

Arguably, the single most famous expression of love in the Western world is found in the Torah: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Why can't I just like my neighbor? Like is not bad. Imagine a world in which everyone liked everyone else. I love my family, but my neighbor!? Why love?

Every verse has context. The context of this one is a surprise. "Love they neighbor as thyself" is found at the end of a set of verses that starts with "Don't harvest your field from one end to the other, leave some over for the poor." In the run up to "Love thy neighbor as thyself," the Torah commands: don't steal, don't deceive, don't defraud, don't rob, don't withhold wages, don't corrupt the justice system, don't gossip, don't stand with your arms folded over anyone's peril, don't take vengeance. Only then does it say, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"Love your neighbor as yourself" is a summary. It is defined by the previous verses.

In the most important love verse in the Torah, love is not a feeling or an emotion. It has nothing to do with romance. Love is in the details. The Torah prefers right behavior over sympathetic emotions. The Torah is suspect of those whoever love in words and don't translate love into action.

There is a love verse that describes love as action. It is not as well-known as "Love your neighbor," nor as famous as "And you shall love the Lord your God."

For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God… upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. -- You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10:17-19)

In these verses, the Torah defines love. Love is feeding hungry people and clothing naked people, not feeling for their plight.

The Torah does not command the obvious. The Torah doesn't instruct that a person should get up in the morning, be productive, contribute to society, and support family. The Torah doesn't command parents to love children, and husbands and wives to love each other. These are natural to the human experience. The Torah commands love where love is least likely to be found. And where the Torah commands and demands love, it isn't looking for an emotion or a sentiment. It is instructing behavior.

Some would argue that love as a feeling ought to come first and lend its emotional sincerity to the behavior. The Torah takes the opposite position. Emotion, thought, conviction, and sentiment are the product of right behavior and just deeds. You will feel love for the stranger and the alien only when you obey the commandment to provide the stranger and the alien with food and clothing.

Loving behavior stirs the heart to love.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund.

 



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