By Rabbi Chaim Bruk
Love is complicated.
I find that the verse “V’Ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” to love your fellow as you love yourself, is often misused by those seeking to make everything OK in the name of love and is underappreciated by those who claim to cling to this mitzvah when they’re actually acting in ways that contradict the mitzvah itself, excusing their actions with “I’m doing it because I love you.”
Hashem demands of us to see individuals for who they are at the soul level, what their neshamah looks like, and not judge them or treat them based on external looks, outer factors, or unhealthy choices they may be making. Yes, there are some individuals the Torah tells us to hate, but they are exceedingly rare, and this idea should never be used as an excuse to mistreat those we are meant to love. As the Alter Rebbe emphasizes in Tanya chapter 32, numerically corresponding to the Hebrew word lev, for heart, those who cherish body over soul, who admire physicality over spirit, are certain to have hardship in relationships, abhorrence for real friendships, and end up expressing only dependent love, not unconditional love, because for them the body is king, not the soul.
As parents, on occasion we are expected to express love that doesn’t feel good but is the right thing for our child. Just last week, Chavie and I had to do something that pained us tremendously to help one of our children, but it was in the best interest of the child, so despite our pain we did it. Love doesn’t always express itself romantically with flowers and chocolate; many times it feels horrible, but it’s love nonetheless. I would venture to say that it’s even greater love, because selfless love reaches deeper than the love that makes us happy, which is a form of an “ulterior motive.” In Likutei Diburim, authored by the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, he writes that sometimes love means standing in the corner and saying Tehillim (Psalms) with tears flowing from our eyes for our beloved. Sometimes the healthiest love is the hardest to experience.
The incredible Brad Reedy, who founded Evoke Therapy in Utah, writes, “When we understand that our pain is our love uncovered, that feeling pain means that we are alive, we move away from behaviors that anesthetize us and embrace our pain as part of a life that is whole.” He’s so right. Parenting isn’t just a journey of memorable family trips, fun bedtime experiences, or even legitimately funny selfies. It also includes lots of pain, mostly internal pain, and instead of numbing that inner cry, we should allow ourselves to feel it and realize that it hurts because we love these kids so much. Our children’s mission in life isn’t just to bring us nachas and joy, but for them to be the best version of themselves, and that takes work—work that sometimes pains parents a lot.
It’s the same with loving fellow Jews. Sometimes it breaks our heart, it pains us, to love a Jew because we don’t approve of their lifestyle choices, we don’t accept their political views, we think they are the world’s problem, and we feel like they aren’t deserving of our love; yet, Hashem says to love them. He doesn’t command us to like them, just to love them, indicating that liking and loving aren’t always linked. The Torah teaches us other mitzvos that help us learn to respect others, treat them with dignity, refrain from oppressing them, and to be kind to them in a variety of ways, but love is a whole different animal and that is what “V’Ahavta” commands us.
Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, wrote Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), expressing the incredible love that exists between Hashem, the groom, and His bride, the Jewish people. Hashem loves us despite our many flaws and never-ending human malfunctions. He doesn’t mistreat us just because we failed at the relationship. He expects us to reciprocate not only by loving Him, but by showing His children, our fellow human beings, a love that isn’t dependent on anything.
I once read a story about a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare life-threatening disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year-old brother, who had somehow survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her brother and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save her.”
As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as everyone in the room did, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale, and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”
Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.
Selfless love is real, so real.
Let’s resolve this Shabbos to love a little more; we will be better for it and so will the world.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.