Congregation Etz Chaim of DuPage County

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775- What is Love?

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 3:07pm -- Rabbi Cosnowsky

Rosh Hashanah Video

Rabbi Bob and I disagree on something. We were sitting in his office, drinking coffee and talking about a myriad of things, when I happened to mention the fact that I always say ‘I love you’ to my parents when I leave them. I told him I also say ‘I love you’ to my children when I kiss them goodnight at night and when I drop them off at school in the morning. I text it to my spouse various times during the day just as a reminder. I figure, if God forbid, something tragic happens that day, it should be the last thing they heard me say. Rabbi Bob didn't agree that this was necessarily a good thing. He thinks that by saying 'I love you' so often, it diminishes its value. I don't know. Maybe he's right?

Tomorrow, we will read from the Torah the story of the Akeidah - the Binding of Isaac and Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his beloved son. This story is about 2 things: Love and Sacrifice. How do we know it's about love? Because this is the first time in the Torah where love is even mentioned. Love is not mentioned in the Creation story, the Noah flood story, or the Tower of Babel story. It's not mentioned in the story of Abraham and Sarah or the story of  Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah. Not until this point is love even mentioned and yet, here it is. The Torah says, "God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2) Abraham loves his son yet still follows the command of God to sacrifice Isaac as an offering. 

The word for sacrifice Korban - comes from the root word Karev - which means to draw close - and it is what the early Temple sacrifices were all about. It was the Israelites’ way of drawing closer to God. Thankfully, today we don't sacrifice animals but rather pray to attempt to draw close. Even prayer is a form of sacrifice because we sacrifice our time to stop and pray. In traditional Judaism, we pray three times a day - talk about a commitment! Which means if we say we love and seek to draw closer to someone or something, we have to be ready to make a commitment. Abraham committed to loving God by being willing to give up the one thing in the world he loved most - that was his son by Sarah. This story is not an easy example of love but rather an example of the idea that love is indeed complicated. I'm not just talking about erotic or romantic love. I mean love in its purest form, which is expressed as the willingness to make sacrifices for another person whom we purport to love.

The Hebrew word for love is Ahavah. It is like one exhales on the mention of the word. It is part of our breath, just as those we love are part of our being. Loving is easy at times as when we care for our infant children as they are totally dependent upon us. That is easy in some ways, and yet, ask anyone who has had an infant lately, it's totally consuming at the same time. But we make the sacrifice because that is what we must do to keep our child alive. 

Of course, when I mention the word love, many people immediately think of one kind of love: Eros - the romantic love. Romantic love is important but it's not necessarily lasting. Of course, that model for love is found within our tradition. Judaism constantly refers to the relationship of God and Israel as husband and wife. Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is the most romantic book in the Hebrew Scriptures, citing text after text of love and other kinds of romantic expression. This is to be metaphorically understood as a romantic relationship between God and Israel.

Let’s look at the Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. This type of document dates back thousands of years and is still used today, ceremonially as well as legally. The Ketubah promises certain things between the spouses, that they will serve, honor and support one another. It does not say that they will necessarily love one another. Judaism defines love as commitment to another person, not as the feeling of love.

In Genesis, Abraham and God entered into a covenant of partnership and commitment. We want that kind of trust in our romantic relationships. The test of love is the ability to stay committed past the romantic phase, after passion has faded. Real love endures. It works with what is left.

Take for instance, the exchange between Tevya and his wife Goldie in Fiddler on the Roof.  He asks her, "Do you love me?"  She answers, "Do I what?" She goes on to say:

For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes

Cooked your meals, cleaned the house

Given you children, milked your cow

For twenty-five years I've lived with him

Fought with him, starved with him

Twenty-five years my bed is his

If that's not love, what is?

So, we can learn a lot from Fiddler on the Roof: Love is not just a feeling, it's a choice that one makes. It sometimes takes a huge sacrifice of your time, your comfort and your convenience, to show your love. In marriage, you have commitment, love, trust, forgiveness and you must live these qualities every day in your words and actions. When kids, jobs, and money become stressful, when we are tired, angry, overwhelmed, or ill - it's how we treat our loved ones through these difficult times that shows our love. Love takes a profound amount of work but the rewards are great and ultimately worth our daily sacrifices.

I believe that we must connect with ourselves before we can focus on loving another human being. One has to know who they are before they commit to love another person with a full heart, fully willing and able to make daily sacrifices for many years. It is an inside job to know who we are and what we are all about. When we fall short of this endeavor, we need to work hard, to know where and how we've fallen short, and then work to come back from it. 

We talk about forgiveness during this season of Awe - usually within the context of forgiving others - but what about loving ourselves enough to forgive ourselves for all we've done and not done in the past and then allowing ourselves to move forward into the future with a clean slate? When we start by forgiving ourselves, we can move from that place of self-love and go out and forgive others. 

This is a central theme to the season of High Holidays. We speak about forgiveness and second chances. Rabbi Bob teaches about how God gives Jonah a second chance. God forgave Jonah for running away from his mission, by giving him another chance to fulfill it. We know that God could have left Jonah alone, seeing that he really wasn't up to the task. But, by trusting Jonah to not make the same mistake, it shows that God treated Jonah as if the experience had never happened in the first place!       

Next week, after we recite Kol Nidre, the congregation will recite the words "vayomer Adonai, salachti kid'varecha," "And God said I have forgiven you, as I have promised." Yom Kippur begins with forgiveness. The rabbis teach that the Yomim Noraim - these days of awe are all about us reenactment the drama of the greatest sin ever committed by the Jewish People - that is, the building of the golden calf. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with his first set of tablets, saw the calf and the people dancing and worshipping around it, and smashed the tablets. But even after this episode, God forgave us, and gave us another set of tablets. In God's love, we were forgiven - both then and now. Forgiveness is a form of love - a gift we give to others - and when we do - it becomes a gift we give to ourselves.

We will read tomorrow during the Torah service, the words that Moses first uttered when he pleads with God not to punish the people who have just built the Golden Calf. "Adonai, Adonai, El Rahum v’hanun: God is compassionate and gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” God hears Moses’ words and forgives the people. (Ex. 34:6-10)

This past summer, my mother fell and broke 5 ribs and fractured her spine in 2 places. When my father went to help her, he fell as well, breaking his ankle and his toe and tearing the ACL in his knee. She ended up in the hospital and then later rehab while he ended up in a boot, unable to drive. They were physically separated for weeks and weeks for the first time in 58 years of marriage. My sister and I, as well as many kind members of our community, pitched in to drive my father to the rehab every day so he could see and be with my mother. People helped us food shop for them, and visited them to ensure that they did not get too isolated. It took a village, and I am grateful for all of the help. A demonstration of love was shown by so many people around us.

Our rabbis have taught us: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—all the people of Israel are responsible for one another. How do we show this responsibility? We have to show our love for our fellow Jews and other human beings by committing to acting toward them in a loving way. This could be as simple as letting someone cut in front of us in heavy traffic, mowing our neighbors’ lawn or supporting a food pantry even though means are tight. It's our obligation to help others in our midst.

How do people know we love them? They watch our actions. Love is a global obligation. We are obligated to oseh chesed - to act in a loving way. When we do so, like the Ketubah between married parties - we are acting as partners with God. We are entered into a sacred covenant with God - which is full of love and devotion. We show God our love, by taking action to do Tikkun Olam and go forth and help others. Even if we cannot physically go and help others, we can still strive to see what is good in another person, to be generous, to share in another's struggle. 

A Chasidic Rabbi Moshe Leib used to tell his students that he learned about what it means to love from Russian peasants. He came to an inn where two drunken friends were finishing the last drops of their vodka together. One of them in a drunken slur said to his friend, "Ilya, do you love me?" 

Ilya was surprised and answered, "Ivan!  Of course I love you!"

"No, no." Insisted Ivan.  "Do you really love me?"

Ilya, now feeling sad, "What do you think? I don't love you? Of course I do. You're my best friend."

Ivan said, "Ilya, if you really love me then why don't you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?"

We all have pain in our hearts because that is the human condition. We forget sometimes that everyone is fighting something. We all struggle, we all have pain. Therefore we should be gentle with others because everyone, whether they show it or not, is fighting a great battle. When we express our love through our actions, we are doing God's work. We are the only hands God has to use to heal this world. Let us always remember to act with love. In this way, the emotion of love eventually follows.

I'm still going to tell my family "I love you," but perhaps Rabbi Bob was right. Maybe it's better to say "I love you" less often and act lovingly more often. People may or may not remember what you say but they will always remember how you made them feel. (Maya Angelou)

May we always strive to love others, not only through our emotions but also through our actions. May we increase peace in the world and bring healing to the pain of others. Ken Yehi Ratzon - may this be God's will. 

Gud Yontif!