Thursday, April 24, 2014

Parashat Kedoshim: Some Thoughts on Love

VeAhavta le’Re’akha Kamokha -- one should love one’s fellow as oneself. This phrase is famously said by Rabbi Akiva to be klal gadol baTorah, a great, perhaps the greatest, principle of the entire Torah. Here we are in the middle of the middle book of the Torah, and what we find at its center is love.

What is this love? The only narrative example in which we hear of such a love for another “as oneself” is the love of Jonathan for David (I Samuel 17 and following). Yonatan is the son of King Saul. Theoretically, it is Yonatan who should be the next king, but young David has been secretly anointed by the prophet at the command of God. David comes on the scene, strong and popular, vanquishing the giant Goliat as well as many other enemies of Israel, to the great adoration of the people. Yonatan, watching all this, strangely enough does not feel threatened as his father does, but welcomes David, helping him and loving him, and symbolically even giving him his own clothes and sword.

What is this love? It is a love that occurs precisely in the space where jealousy could have, and by all rights, should have, sprouted. David was essentially stealing what Yonatan had every right to expect to be his. He should not have rejoiced at David’s success, but been driven mad by it, as was his father Saul. Indeed, every time David had any success, Saul is said to be overcome by a ruah ra’ah, “a bad spirit.” This is the spirit of jealousy that eats us alive from the inside. Yonatan, by contrast, seems to evade such evil temper by dint of his simple, strong affection for David. More than anything, the problem with jealousy, and on the other side, the benefit of love, is how they affects us, the one making us feel evil-tempered, and the other making us feel happy and generous. Choosing love is in this way a matter of self-interest. It feels better to be loving.

But of course, one cannot really control emotions. Or so we argue. But perhaps, as Rav Naftali Hertz Vizel of the Biur suggests (as cited in Nehama Leibowitz’s commentary), the Torah in this command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is hinting at a way of thinking that may help one do just that. The key is the word kamokha, “like you.” Learn to think of others, even would-be enemies, as being “like you,” made in the image of God, and therefore, like you, worthy of respect and affection. I would add to this sense of “like you” another dimension: Know that others are like you in their suffering, their insecurities, their fears and their anxieties. Don’t just look at the exterior and think – that person is perfect, has no problems, and therefore is not in need of either my compassion or my love. This removes them from the “like you” human category and therefore makes it easy to be jealous and hard to love them. Remember that we are all human, we all have our troubles, we all suffer in some way, remember these things and the kindness, the open-heartedness of a Jonathan-like love will naturally emerge.

Such love is a mind-set, a spiritual/emotional habit, a practice we can indeed practice and become better at. It is indeed the core of the Torah because it is the root of our ability to move out of ourselves, both in relation to God and to others, the root of our ability to transcend the natural tight frame of the ego, and feel the breadth of our connection to others.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Pesach and Inclusiveness

Who is the Seder for?

Again and again, the Haggadah uses the root kol, “everyone.” Kol dikhfin, “everyone who is hungry,” kulanu mesubin, “tonight we all recline,” “even if we are all wise,” “all who speak much about the Exodus are praiseworthy,” “in every generation,” . . .

It seems that above all, the Haggadah aims at inclusiveness. Even the rasha, the “wicked”child, who is seemingly rejected, is nonetheless in the Haggadah, and therefore every year, appears again at our Seder.

Indeed the 4 children epitomize the aim of the Haggadah – to reach each child, and each adult as they are. Each one has different needs and therefore gets a different response – an early prorotype of differentiated instruction!

Perhaps that is why the Haggadah includes such a plethora of different types of activities – concrete symbols to eat and look at, songs to sing, intellectual discussions and math excercises (check out the argument over how many plagues there were in Egypt and at the Sea!), and ritualized actions like the breaking of the matzah and the pouring out of some wine for the plagues. Perhaps that also explains the repeated attempts to both complicate and simplify the story – on the one hand, to elaborate midrashically using verses from many sources, and on the other hand, to summarize the plagues into three easy words, the mneumonic, Destzakh adash be’ahab and Rabban Gamliel’s attempt to encapsulate the whole meaning of the Seder in 3 simple symbols.

All of these are attempts at reaching different audiences, or sometimes, different parts of ourselves, through different media and teaching methods. There is an acknowledgement here that this ceremony is for “everyone.”

This “everyone” trait means that the Seder is not always an easy affair. It often brings together people of varying religious, tempermental and educational proclivities, and asks them to have an experience of redemption together. I find myself worrying ahead of time and during the Seder about these differences and how everyone will be accommodated. Perhaps it would be easier to have a Seder alone, but the message of the Seder is that true redemption is only achieved together. Instead of feeling the differences to be a source of stress, this year I hope to feel that the differences are a source of strength and richness, precisely what makes our joint tapestry durable, and precisely what helps us to achieve redemption. It is only when we see clearly that we are not alone, but a small piece of something larger, with each one playing her part, that we can move out of ourselves to a place of communal redemption. Happy Passover to all!