DECISION TO LOVE
for World Congress of Families III
There is a
tale in the Talmud of a wealthy Roman woman who approached a great
rabbi and asked, “Since God created the world, what has he been
doing?” The rabbi answered that God has been matching men and women
for marriage. The woman said, “That is not difficult.” She lined up
all her male and female slaves and matched them up, “This man with
this woman; this man with this woman.” The next day the slaves came
to her, this one with an injured eye and this one with a broken arm.
“I don’t want him.” “I don’t want her.” The Roman woman then
returned to the rabbi and said, “I realize the greatness of God. To
make a good match is as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea.”
(Genesis Rabbah 68:4)
center of the Torah’s vision for humanity is the verse, “A man shall
leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife, and they shall
be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Notice that it does not say, a man
shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his lovers, wives,
mistresses, and casual sex partners. Marriage and fidelity are the
ideal for men and women. Yet we live in a world of recreational sex,
failed marriages, and children whose parents are not a daily presence
in their lives.
Why are our
marriages in such trouble? Twenty-five years of Rabbinic counseling
have convinced me that we do not know how to love. As a culture we
have totally misunderstood the meaning of love. We date someone who
attracts us sexually, we fall in love, and then we get married. Then
for many of us, the marriage becomes stale, we seek excitement
elsewhere, we fall out of love, divorce, fall in love with someone
else, and marry again. Polygamy has been outlawed, but serial
monogamy has become the norm. Or else we do not bother to marry at
all, moving from lover to lover as long as we feel fulfilled. In our
search for love, too often we abandon marriage..
think is love of the other is really simply love of ourselves. There
is a Hasidic story of a man who catches a huge carp and keeps it alive
to give away as a gift. The carp is very frightened, until he hears
the Hasid say that he is going to give the fish to the local
nobleman. “He loves carp.” The carp feels much better. If the
nobleman loves carp, he will certainly protect him and keep him safe.
The Hasid brings the carp to the nobleman, who immediately orders his
servants to cut it in half, cook it, and serve it for dinner the next
two nights. The carp screams. “I thought you love carp. You don’t
love carp; you only love yourself.”
If we are
to create marriages that last, we must rethink how we look at love.
We need to teach our young people the true meaning of love. What does
it mean to fall in love and marry? Let us share some insights from
the Jewish mystical tradition known as kabbala. These insights will
be part of my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled The Kabbala of
Love. I believe these will help us rediscover the true meaning of
love, and create marriages that really do succeed.
teaches that we live our lives in four different worlds. The worlds
are like nested dolls popular in Russia, each world contained in a
higher world. What we do in each world affects the higher world. Our
soul, which goes by various names, exists in all four worlds. Let us
climb through the four worlds, look at four levels of our soul, and
ask the question, what does it mean to love in each of these four
worlds? What does it mean to love with four levels of our soul?
Love in Olam HaAsiya, the World of Action
world is called Olam HaAsiya, the World of Action. In this
world the soul is called nefesh, from a root meaning “to
rest.” This is the soul closest to the material world. The spirit of
God literally comes to rest in the physical, a place where things take
up space and move. In this world, action is most important. Love
begins with action. Before we choose to love anybody, we must
ask, how do they act? What are their values? What kind of family do
they come from, and what behavior has they learned from that family?
And then we have to look at ourselves and say, how do I act towards
the one I have chosen to love?
much wisdom in the Biblical story of Isaac and Rebecca. Abraham’s
servant Eliezer searched for an appropriate wife for Isaac. He did
not look for beauty, sexual attraction, or romance. He looked at
action, family, and values. He chose the young woman with the best
values, the one willing not only to give him water but also to draw
water for his camels. The
Torah teaches that
Isaac married Rebecca and only then fell in love with her. The love
came after the marriage.
this Biblical marriage to that of Jacob and Rachel. This was a more
familiar kind of love - love at first sight, love as deep emotions.
Jacob saw Rachel and immediately kissed her, he worked seven years for
her, years that seemed like a few days because of his love for her, he
then had to work a second seven years. This is love as overwhelming
Who had the
better marriage, Isaac and Rebecca or Jacob and Rachel? The Bible is
filled with clues. Both couples had infertility problems. Isaac and
Rebecca stood across the room and prayed for each other. Jacob and
Rachel traded harsh words. Isaac never took a concubine to have a
baby, even after twenty years of infertility. The Torah speaks of
Isaac and Rebecca’s playful sexual relationship. On the other hand,
when Jacob died he did not request to be buried next to his beloved
Rachel but rather next to his first wife Leah. It seems clear that
the arranged marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, a marriage based on
actions, was stronger than the romantic marriage of Jacob and Rachel.
of our tradition is actions come first. Behavior always comes before
feelings. When the Israelites received the Torah, they said, “we will
do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7) The doing comes first.
The first step in finding real love is to look at behavior, the
behavior of our potential partner, and our own behavior. We must
teach our young people - look first at values.
Love in Olam HaYitzira, the World of Formation
world is called Olam HaYitzira, the world of formation, what I
often refer to as the World of Passion. The soul is called ruach,
literally “spirit” or “wind.” This is the soul on the animal level,
the level of appetites, passions, feelings, and emotions. This is the
world identified with eros, the sexual drive and feelings.
This is the world we often refer to when we use the phrase “falling in
love.” Notice the word “fall” means carried away by a force beyond
our control; our emotions are like gravity, causing us to fall.
important insight is that we can control whom we choose to fall in
love with. We are not at the mercy of uncontrollable emotions. Each
of us is born with a protective covering that prevents us from being
hurt. We can choose to lower that protective covering, or to use the
Biblical term, “to uncover our nakedness.” Uncovering nakedness is
not simply about sexual behavior. It is about vulnerability, opening
ourselves up to another human being.
love on the animal level of our soul. Often it is passionate. We
become carried away. Notice that in the Garden of Eden we humans were
“naked and not ashamed.” We were animal like, unprotected, attracted
to one another as animals are drawn together. When we ate of the Tree
of Knowledge, we were driven from the Garden, given clothing, and told
to cover ourselves up. As humans, we were given the ability to
control our nakedness, to stay covered or to uncover ourselves.
someone who attracts us physically and emotionally. We are drawn to
them, and we begin to uncover our nakedness, allowing ourselves to
become vulnerable. This is eros - falling in love. This kind of love
can make us fly like a kite. It can also send us crashing to the
ground. We are easily hurt. Love makes us vulnerable. We need
passion, and yet passion can be dangerous.
Part of the
problem with love in the world of passion is too often we are focused
on our own needs, our own self. The Bible tells the story of Amnon
and Tamar his half sister, both children of King David. He fell madly
in love with her. But his love was really a deep sexual desire and
when he had his way with her, he grew to hate her. His love, which
quickly turned into hate, led to a bitter civil war in David’s
household. The Rabbis call this ahava hateluya badavar, love
with an ulterior motive. (Avot 5:20) According to the Talmud, such
conditional love can never last.
compare this to the love of David and Jonathan, which was not gay,
sexual love but a deep, abiding friendship. Jonathan sacrificed the
kingship for his friend David. The Rabbis call this ahava sheaina
teluya badavar, love with no ulterior motive. This is the only
kind of love that can last.
marriage, our goal should be this unconditional love. Love, which is
there to meet our own needs, can never really build a strong
marriage. Like the story of the carp, too often when we think we have
fallen in love, we really love ourselves. That is why, for a marriage
to last, we need to look beyond ourselves and learn to love in the
Love in Olam HaBeriya, the World of Creation
world is known as Olam HaBeriya, the World of Creation, which I
often call the world of reflection. The soul in this world is called
neshama, literally “breath.” Unlike the animals, God literally
breathed a breath of life into us humans. It is the world where we
move beyond ourselves, where we can truly see the other. Animals feel
emotionally drawn to others. But only humans can really see their
fellow humans, reflect on what they need, and set themselves aside to
meet the needs of the other. Love begins with seeing, listening, and
knowing the other, just as “Adam knew his wife Eve.” (Genesis 4:1)
serving our beloved. But we cannot be servants without knowing whom
the other is and what he or she needs in order to flourish. There is
a Hasidic story told by Rabbi Moshe of Sasov about how he learned true
love from a peasant in a tavern. He saw the peasant put his arm
around a fellow peasant, and in a drunken tone of voice say, “Ivan, do
you love me?” “Of course I love you.” “Ivan, do you know what gives
me pain?” “No, I do not know what gives you pain.” “If you do not
know what gives me pain, how can you say you love me?” True love
means spending time together, keeping our eyes, ears, and heart open,
and knowing what gives our beloved pain and joy.
marriage to work, a husband or wife must truly see his or her spouse,
be best friends, and openly communicate. Be prepared to meet the needs
of the other. This is love as philos, friendship. The Jewish
marriage ceremony calls spouses reim ahuvim “loving friends.”
It is the love that the Biblical commentator Rashi spoke of when he
commented on the verse ezer kenegdo “a helper against him,” if
he is worthy she will be a helper, but if he is not worthy, she will
be against him. (Rashi on Genesis 2:18) A wife is a helper to her
husband, and a husband is a helper to his wife. Marriage means seeing
our spouse and helping them fulfill their particular human mission on
We can only
reflect on the other if we set ourselves aside. There is a
kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum, self-contraction. In order to
create a world and allow humans to flourish, God had to contract God’s
self to create an empty space. So each of us must practice tritium,
contract ourselves, our appetites, our needs, in order to focus on the
needs of our spouse. We must truly see them in order to meet their
needs. Ben Sira taught, "A good wife is a joy to her husband, she
shall double the days of his life." (Ben Sira 26:1) For both men and
women, a good spouse makes us more successful in life. But only if
the spouse lives in the World of Reflection, able to see the other and
truly meet their needs.
Love in Olam HaAtzilut, The World of Emanation
world we can reach while still living in this material world is
Olam HaAtzilut, the World of Emanation. The soul on this level of
connection is called chaya, literally “life.” This is the
world beyond the physical, a world where we feel such a deep and
powerful connection to our beloved that it is as if our souls are
connected. We have left the limitation of our bodies and encountered
one another on a higher spiritual plane. Our ego has disappeared.
This is encounter on the highest level, what Martin Buber called an
I-Thou relationship. Such moments of being at one with the other do
not last forever. Our soul must return to this world. But after such
an encounter with our beloved, we feel transformed.
agape; love where the self has disappeared. We live for the other
and the other lives for us. We see our spouse, as more than the
person we happened to marry; they are our beshert, the one who
was meant for us. Suddenly we understand the statement in the Talmud,
“Rav Judah say in the name of Rav, Forty days before the formation of
a child, a heavenly voice goes out and says, The daughter of so and so
for the son of so and so.” (Sota 2a) These are souls so connected
that, as I see written on many tombstones, they are “Together
moments of connection, we see the role of God in our marriage. We can
understand the insight of gematria, or kabbalistic numerology. The
Hebrew word for love is ahava. The letters add up to
thirteen. If I love you, the total value is thirteen. And if you
love me, the value is also thirteen. Two loves add up to twenty-six.
And twenty-six is precisely the value of God’s four letter name,
yud hey vav hey. Where two humans meet with love, there we find
the presence of
If we are
to rebuild marriages, we must teach our young people how to love in
all four worlds. First we must teach that all love begins with
action, how we behave towards our beloved. Only then are we ready to
lower our protective barriers and allow passion to overtake us. As we
grow in our love, we learn to contract our own ego and reflect on our
beloved; helping him or her become the person God wants them to be.
At the highest level, we seek moments of oneness with our beloved
where our self disappears, and for precious moments we become at one
with the beloved.
learn to grow our love through the four-kabbalistic worlds. Only then
can we fulfill the beautiful Biblical verse, "Vast floods cannot
quench love, nor rivers drown it." (Song of Songs 8:7)