Beit Midrash

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The Torah's Understanding of Love

So much has been written over the course of history about the always-fascinating topic of Love. It encompasses many aspects of our lives, whether between parents and children, between G-d and mankind, between man and woman, or just simply various experiences in which we "love" to engage. The Torah tells us to "love your friend as yourself" and to "love Hashem your G-d." It also relates that Yitzchak loved his wife Rivka, and that the two of them loved each of their sons, respectively. Yet, there is still much room to clarify what precisely is the Torah's approach to this issue.

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Rabbi Eli Shienfeld

Av 15 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

So much has been written over the course of history about the always-fascinating topic of Love. It encompasses many aspects of our lives, whether between parents and children, between G-d and mankind, between man and woman, or just simply various experiences in which we "love" to engage.

The Torah tells us to "love your friend as yourself" and to "love Hashem your G-d." It also relates that Yitzchak loved his wife Rivka, and that the two of them loved each of their sons, respectively. Yet, there is still much room to clarify what precisely is the Torah's approach to this issue.

One might think that the "Beit Midrash" (Torah study hall) seeks to negate and even choke off love. This mistaken thought is based on the false idea that true love sprouts from forbidden things such as total wantonness and sensory permissiveness. Since the Torah places restrictions on matters having to do with male-female relations and the like, it appears to some that the Torah seeks to restrict love and enjoyment. The obligations to guard one's eyes and not touch the opposite sex seem, according to this approach, to impede the flowering of true love.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. The Torah's restrictions do not at all restrict genuine love. The Torah happily understands and acknowledges that love is a very significant and unique force. Not only does the Torah often praise he who serves G-d with love, it also defines love between man and wife as a most important goal. Our holy ancestors loved their wives, and we, too, are bidden to do the same. In the Seven Wedding Blessings, we bless the bride and groom that they merit to build a home full of love, joy, peace, and friendship.

What, then, is the goal of the restrictions and limitations in matters of physical relations? The answer is they are actually designed to preserve true love, and give it room to proliferate and grow! This is done by ensuring that "love" is categorized and placed in its proper places and times. This very critical point helps us understand how the restrictions restrain our physical urges.

Our Beit Midrash teaches that two types of "love" must be recognized: There is love that acts upon a person, and there is love in which the person himself is active.

In the first type of love, the person is passively led along, sometimes even blindly. The second type of love is one that the person works on to ensure its proper development. Its establishment and perfection depend mainly on the actions of the loving person. The Beit Midrash emphasizes repeatedly that love can and must be developed, and that if it arrives suddenly without preparation, it could easily evaporate and disappear in the same measure.

This insight applies to the love present in various areas. Between man and his G-d, for instance, there can be a love that is external and mainly emotional. But there can also be a true, inner love, one that stems from hard work, where there is true unity between the person and his G-d, as in the Sukkot prayer, "Ani vahu [He and I], please save!" Nationally speaking, too: A person might have a superficial love for his people, motivated by the force of habit and routine. But if we search, we can also find internal and deep love for all parts of the nation.

And of course, regarding love between a man and a woman, both types are possible: There can be a low-level, shallow love, or there can be internal, deep, lasting love.

The ideal relationship between man and woman is one that is deep and essential, one that has the potential to rise up to a strong soul connection. A bond between people based on physicality and other externals does not actualize the tremendous potential that exists in a man-wife relationship, and is therefore not proper. Love of this type will generally turn out to be temporary, leaving behind bad sensations, often including feelings of shame and hatred charged with very negative energies.

"Falling" in Love

Why, then, do so many people end up in relationships with such significant disadvantages? Why do they allow physical impressions and attractions to govern their choices? Terms such as "blind love" or "love at first sight" divulge the nature of this type of love, showing that it is based only on one external, non-intrinsic dimension. The power of this one dimension prevents the person from seeing the entire picture of what a long-lasting relationship must actually involve. The term "falling in love," too, implies that one has no control over the situation; other forces, not unlike gravity, are pulling him "down."

We thus see that it is not sufficient merely "to love;" we must know how to love correctly. We must distinguish between false love and correct love, and know how to build and develop love so that it will bring positive results. As in many areas of life, the place of G-d's Torah and its study play an important role in guiding us in the right direction. The Torah has much to say in guiding us "how to love," both in the Written and Oral Torahs. As such, it is worthwhile to clarify these matters through the lens of Torah, and not only based on our instincts, and certainly not on the poetic and romantic words of popular singers and writers.

It is the Torah that has the appropriate tools to help guide us in this critically important topic.

Every generation has its own spiritual and educational challenges. One of our generation's most important challenges is how to properly establish and build love, between man and woman, as well as within families. We must define love, and explain the difference between "genuine love" and "falling in love." We must answer questions such as, "What is family? How important is it to have children?" and the like. Particularly in our generation, when issues that were instinctively simple to all are now under attack, they must be properly and truly clarified.

Especially now, when many children are growing up without a natural understanding of the essential nature of a "family," the Beit Midrash can play a critical role in illuminating these basic matters. As one prominent student told his teacher in the Talmud when he sought to learn details of the marital relationship, "this too is Torah, and I must learn it."

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