Why do we love? Have you ever thought about that? There are hormones and societal pressure to be sure, but deep down, why do we love?
This question came up a few years ago when I was meeting with a couple that was preparing for their wedding. I asked the husband-to-be why he fell in love with his fiance. He said to me, “I knew I loved her because she was making me into the best version of myself.” I thought about it for a minute and said:
“Nope. I’m not sure you should get married.”
He glared at me strangely and with quite a bit of anger. I knew he was going to get angry, but I had to get his attention. I continued, “Listen, you shouldn’t love someone for yourself. You can’t expect your spouse to give you a spiritual makeover. Don’t love them for you, love them for them.”
Marriage is a commitment that shows us that life is not about me, but we. We should love others because of the infinite worth that they present to us, not about adding to our value. Love is not about taking someone into yourself but giving yourself to them. Love is not about being a consumer but a producer. Love is a gift.
At that moment, his fiance smirked and said, “Yeah, honey, listen to rabbi.” We all laughed. (They are now married and have wonderful children.)
But what this young man said to me about his fiance making him into “the best version of himself” is what the broader society tell us to say. We’ve corrupted the narrative of community, by saying that you need to do life alone. Society has told us over and over again that your greatest commitment – more than your job, more than your spouse, more than your family – is to your personal greatness.
The attitude I’m talking about, is one where you value what you can take over what you can give. Where you value what you need over how you are needed. Where you value what makes you great and not how you make others great.
It’s like traveling to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon and seeing the most wonderous things but leaving unfulfilled because you haven’t made the time to raise the phone and taken a selfie. The modern world whispers to us that life doesn’t really happen if you haven’t taken your picture and posted for others to see. Self expression and discovery are important, but it becomes narcissistic if the purpose of every moment is to have it captured in your story.
Love can’t work this way.
In this week’s reading of Parashat Behotecha, we see what it means to have sacred love. The Israelites are just about to begin their journey. God commands Moses to tell Aaron, “In your going up to light the menorah, let the seven lamps give light at the front of it.” (Numbers 8:1-2) This is the menorah that was built back in Exodus, and as the community is preparing for its journey into the wilderness, the narrative stops and tells us that Aaron needs to light the holy menorah.
The rabbis felt this whole process to be a little strange. In the next chapter, we learn that God appears to the Israelites at night as a “vision of fire” (Num. 9:15). God’s very Presence lights up the dark, why then, is Aaron commanded now to light the Menorah? It’s like God is saying to Aaron, we can both take the freeway, but I’ll take the carpool lane. Why have a small lamp, when you have the fire of God roaring right next to it?
The Midrash answers their own question by saying that God is expressing sacred love in this moment. According to legend the Menorah is a gift.
This gift is not for God’s sake but for ours. (Tanchuma 4:1) The Menorah’s light pales in comparison to the light of God. God is not the Taker but the Giver, not the Consumer but the Creator. God does not love you so that God can take a selfie with you. God loves you for your sake.
The name of the reading is, Behalotecha – in your going up. God’s light is for you, but you must also kindle your own flame. The Menorah is God’s gift to you to light up the world. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” (Gen. 1:3) so must you say “Let there be light.”
This is what sacred love is. To love each other not for self-centered greatness but for inspiring greatness in each other. God is not in relationship with you to make God better. God’s relationship with the you – the covenant – is to make you better. So that you can heal your brokenness, to help you grow in spirit and fight for justice.
A life on fire, a holy life, is one where you are a creator with the Creator, a giver with the Giver and a dreamer with the Dreamer. God light’s up your soul so that you can share your light with others. You are loved so that you may love. You have been given the gift of life and the covenant of life to give it to others to light the way and set the world on fire.