Today is November 28, 2023 /
I want to teach two truths that we all know:
I’m not talking about crazy wild romantic love (though that is also important) ― I’m talking about everyday love. Loving behavior expressed in words and acts of kindness, in families and communities, amongst friends and strangers.
We are wired to be loving. When we express love, we are most in sync with our nature. Rav Kook writes that the act of loving is even more powerful than the experience of receiving love.
Though these are obvious statements about human nature, I was oblivious to them for most of my life, as a son, husband, father, and teacher.
No one told me that life is really about being a loving person. No one told me that I should pay more attention to my capacity to love, and strive to deepen my loving throughout all of my relationships. Not in high school, university, or graduate school. Not in synagogue, yeshiva, or rabbinical school.
The Kabbalah states that the soul is “a piece of God” (Chelek Eloka m’ma’al). What does it mean that we are “a piece of God?”
Every day we state: Hear Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
God is oneness. And we, human beings, created in the Image of God, are also forces of oneness.
Our soul continually pulsates this message: “Be a force of oneness, create oneness”. Acts of kindness; giving; listening generously; and, especially, love ― all create oneness. This is the voice of our soul, our spiritual DNA. Love is the primary force with the power to create oneness between individuals, in a community, and in a nation. Rav Kook writes that when one does not hear the voice of the soul, toxic stones gather around that person’s heart. We suffer pangs of despair, exaggerated anxiety, meaninglessness, loss of hope, and emptiness when we do not actualize the inner voice urging us to generate oneness and love.
I’ve experienced all of these conditions. But no one told me that these painful feelings are actually symptoms of not listening to my heart. I wasn’t aware that my lack of loving could bring about so much anguish.
The Judaism I was taught values commitment, knowledge, leadership, social action, and certain elite professions. In the countless sermons, Divrei Torah, and classes I sat through, no one ever mentioned ‘becoming a more loving human being’ as a goal, an aspiration, of the incredible project of Judaism.
My rabbis were learned and articulate, and their lessons captivated and stimulated me intellectually. But ‘loving’ is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of my teachers, rabbis, or community leaders.
Personally, when I became a teacher I loved some of my students ― even most of them. But the difficult, awkward, and irritating ones I tended to ignore at best, or hope they would drop out of my class at worst. Looking back, I now understand that those students actually needed my love much more than the others.
How did we forget to emphasize the value of loving? How did we lose love?
Many people tell me that love cannot be taught. It is just something people have, or don’t have.
Many people tell me that love is something that we only learn in our family settings.
Many people tell me that love is a Christian value, whereas we prioritize mitzvot and social action.
Many people tell me that love is unstable and unpredictable. Didn’t we learn anything from the volatile ‘60s about how destructive and narcissistic it can be when an entire society focuses just on ‘love’?!
I recently met with a group of 23 rabbis and taught the approach of four leading Jewish thinkers on how to become a more loving person. The thinkers are Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the Rambam, the Hasidic master S’fat Emet, and Rav Kook. They lay out four different approaches to developing our loving capacities: physical, intellectual, emotional, and mystical.
We spoke at length about how we feel about ourselves when we fail to love the congregant who is difficult to love. The rabbis dejectedly admitted that in such situations, they feel disappointed; worthless; shamed; fragile; frustrated; betrayed; cowardly; defeated; humiliated; and sad.
When I asked for strategies of how to deal with the student who is difficult to love, the rabbis at first suggested either asking the person to leave, or ignoring him or her (sound familiar?).
Eventually, we came to the realization that this difficult person is actually a blessing in our lives. This person offers the opportunity to work on ourselves, open our hearts a bit more, and grow in our loving capacities. In our minds, we moved from avoiding and banishing this person to a sense of purpose and aspiration to self-growth.
As educators, we have let down our students and communities by not focusing more on the soulful work of learning how to become loving.
I think our hesitation to focus our teaching on love comes down to fear.
Fear that I may not be a loving person.
Fear that if love becomes a primary value in our society, then my honor and prestige as a scholar may be threatened.
Fear that love may present a radical disruption in the ladder of security and priorities of society, elevating people who may not be as “sophisticated” while diminishing the roles of the elite.
I am one of those who are afraid. My ego is well invested in my public role and accomplishments.
Nevertheless, the time has come to shout from the rooftops: “Judaism is about living in the image of God. The only quality it asks of us to embody is loving ― to be a force of oneness in this world.”
And I’m not the first to say it.
R’ Akiva said that “Loving your neighbor” is the fundamental principle of Torah.
Pirkei Avot asserts that the most precious human quality is having a “lev tov” (a good heart).
Rav Dessler wrote that the primary challenge in life is to transform the ‘desire to take’ into the ‘desire to give’.
Rav Ashlag wrote extensively on the centrality of love and giving.
Rav Kook wrote that he could not not love:
“The whole goal of our learning is to remove the obstacles from our becoming more loving human beings.” (Orot HaKodesh IV, 389, 39)
Why are sources and ideas absent from our school curricula, synagogue sermons, and community activities?
The Jewish world recently celebrated the conclusion of the 7-year cycle of daf yomi. Beyond the fanfare, I quietly wonder how much the acquisition of pages of content affects our behavior, our society, and most certainly our capacity to love.
What if we had an “Ahava Yomit” project? Promoting and recognizing daily acts of love. Celebrating acts of giving, chesed, and generous loving. Courses, programs, and projects in our schools focusing on acts of love. YouTubes and workshops dedicated to daily acts of love.
What if becoming loving people became a primary community goal, reflected in our schools and synagogues? Classes taught, role models interviewed, videos going viral?
We may consider ourselves to be kind, giving, and loving people – but we are all works-in-progress. There is always room to expand our hearts even more.
How much would you give to become a more loving person?
How much would you give to have your children become more loving people?
How much would you give to have more love in your community?
How much would you give to have the Jewish people become a more loving people?
For centuries, Judaism has exalted triumphs of the mind.
The time has come to prioritize our unique power to create oneness, to celebrate and extoll the victories of our hearts.