There’s a couple with whom I interact, usually separately, and I know the wife much better than the husband. But I met with him recently, and when I saw his wife the other day I said, “I love your husband.”
She threw her head back and laughed. Because her husband is known as a bit of a curmudgeon and not everyone would say that about him. A day later he left me a funny phone message about something else and ended with, “By the way, I love you too.”
We use the word love in many different ways. I love my dog. I love my tallit. I love my congregation. I love my daughters. All of those sentences use the same verb and yet it means something different every time. It’s a catch-all, a summary for strong positive feelings.
And this multi-dimensional way of understanding the word love is helpful when it comes to the Torah, which commands us to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
To love one’s neighbor as oneself is a tall order. It means caring for yourself and someone else equally. It’s a difficult balance to maintain; and if you put your own needs aside too much on behalf of another, you can end up harming yourself. It’s why our tradition cautions against giving too much tzedakah, charitable giving, lest we impoverish ourselves and need help from the community.
The Talmud steps in with some helpful clarifications. In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos says, “The honor of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own, and do not be easy to anger.” A few verses later, Rabbi Yossei haKoheyn adds, “The property of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own.”
These three things – caring about your neighbor’s honor, and his or her property, and not becoming angry at minor offenses – can guide us in observing the commandment to love our neighbor.
We don’t have to be in love with the person next door. All we have to do is be respectful of their feelings and their property. It’s the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” with one significant difference – the commandment to love isn’t qualified.
The golden rule gives a reason for being thoughtful and kind – the payoff is that you expect the same for yourself. The commandment to love doesn’t say anything about the person returning the favor. Perhaps that’s why Rabbi Eliezer’s prescription includes the warning “do not be easy to anger.” It can be frustrating when you do something nice for another person and they don’t reciprocate, even harder when they’re nasty about it.
And what about loving God? How exactly are we supposed to love God? God is God. Which in our tradition means that God is hard to pin down.
Judaism doesn’t make it easy for us. I can’t picture God, I can’t explain God, I can’t even tell you that God IS or what God is.
I can’t tell you God’s name, although I can list more than 70 names that Judaism uses. I can’t tell you much about God at all, even though we have a list of attributes that we ascribe to the Deity and chant on the High Holidays.
This is not particularly helpful when it comes to love.
Love is an emotion, something we feel but have trouble explaining. When we say we love someone we end up listing the person’s attributes – she’s funny, he’s kind, we share the same passions and interests.
It is as impossible to define as God is. Words don’t do it justice. And yet, each one of us knows exactly what I mean when I use the word love.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the word God. Both are indescribable. But love is much easier for us to understand.
When I think about my friend’s husband and why I love him, I remember the reason he wanted to meet with me. He had told me that he wanted to discuss two things.
I was intrigued, and when we sat down together and he told me the two things, I was taken aback. Neither had to do with him. One was a favor for a couple who needed help that only a rabbi could provide, and the other a Jewish organization that he wanted to support, and he wanted to run an idea by me. A deeply religious Jew, this man ’s love for his neighbor is an integral part of his love for God, and it inspired my love for him.
Our tradition does teach us one tangible thing about God. It teaches that we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. If this is so, then I know exactly how to love God. Like this man does, it is by loving my neighbor as myself. We are both made in the image of God. We both share something, unique to every one of us and yet constant from person to person.
And we are told how to do that, in the v’ahavta prayer, the paragraph immediately after the Shema. We are told to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might. And it tells us where and when to love God; when we sit in our house or walk down the road, when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, all the time.
By loving our neighbors – all of them, even the ones we don’t like – we love God. It’s not easy; love never is. And the key to the whole thing is loving yourself. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t really love your neighbor, can’t really love God. Love begins at home. It begins here, in each one of us.
This is the sermon that I gave over at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat