Every Friday night, my wife and I bless our children. We move around our Shabbat dinner table and place our hands upon their heads and give them the blessings of the ancients. “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s light and grace shine down upon you. May God’s face be lifted upon you and show you the way to peace.” (Lev. 6:23-27) We give them this blessing every Friday night that we are together, no matter what they’ve done, no matter how angry they’ve made us and no matter if their rooms are clean or not. One time, one of my children decided, as children do, to color with markers on the rug, leaving well crafted scribbles of red ink in the carpet, right before Shabbat started. Already frantically cooking and cleaning, I came into the living room to find the mess. It was too late to stop everything and clean up again. Even with my roiling frustration, we came around the dinner table and when time to bless my children, I did, because that is the commitment we made. Every Friday night, no matter what, we will stand over them and draw them close and confer upon them these ancient words. Love is something we don’t just feel, it’s something we do.
If you were to ask me what love is, I would say this is as close as I can come. We don’t love someone because they are perfect or simply wonderful to us. We love them through their messes and brokenness. We love them not because they make our lives better, but because they make life itself better. Behind these words are hopes and fears, gratitude and disappointment. I bless you with protection because I fear for your life. I bless you with grace, for I fear the world is void of it. I bless you with seeking peace, because I know the world is void of it. And if this is love, then what is the opposite of love?
To me the opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is apathy. Hatred is feelings we have toward another person because of something they have said or done. It’s easy to stack up lists of people we hate for all sorts of reasons. Hatred is something that exists inside of us; it’s a reaction to the world that rests in our minds. Many of the people we hate don’t know we hate them, and probably many more don’t even know we exist (for some, that might be why we hate them). If this is the case, then to hate someone so much that you would act on it through violence is to know that they have hopes and dreams and worries and to simply not care. We shut ourselves off to the empathy that connects all of us. When we don’t care about the lives of others, we are apathetic to their souls, turning them from subjects to objects, from “Thous,” as Martin Buber would say, to “Its.”
The opposite of love is not simply to hate others, but to have no feeling at all.
Right now I think the world has forgotten that apathy and cruelty are the opposite of love. Whether it’s online trolling each other, lying in wait for someone we don’t know or don’t like to mess up, or it’s to take those who don’t believe in what we believe and turn them into nameless enemies. Whether we use our advantage and privilege to push others further into the muck, or to cancel out a lifetime of work because of a single gaffe, we forget too easily that all of us were created in the Divine image. We act out of the opposite of love, rather than love itself, far too often because it makes us feel good to cheat, to deride, and to crush. If you’d rather drop the mic on someone than drop a hand to someone, then you are acting out of the opposite of love.
Moses knows this in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei. The Hebrew word ahav, or love, is used more in the Book of Deuteronomy than in any other book of the Torah, nearly twice as many times as in Genesis and ten times as much as in Exodus and Leviticus. Over and over again Moses tries to teach the nation that love is what motivates God’s actions of redemption, forgiveness, and justice. (Deut. 4:37, 5:10, 7:8, 10:18-19) Far from being the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle and the Western philosophers, the God of Deuteronomy is moved deeply by our struggles. Far from separating love from the law, as Christianity does, the God of Judaism shows love through the law, because to the Jewish mind, love is expectation. Love is not just a feeling, but a deed.
Moses teaches that we too are expected to return God’s love through our deeds, by raising and teaching children to love, (Deut. 6:5-9) of doing what is right even when we don’t feel like it, (Deut. 21:16) and to loving the stranger, widow and orphan. (Deut. 10:19) Moses does not just tell us how and why love matters so much, but he actually gives us examples of when love matters most, such as the cases of lost property (Deut. 22:1-3), or the fallen donkey that needs your help to stand up. (Deut. 22:4) Love is all over this book — and what of the opposite of love?
There is one case that is so important in the Torah, that your life depends on you deciding to act out of love or out of the opposite of love. “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”(Deut. 22:6–7)
Maimonides teaches in the Guide to the Perplexed, that the reason we shoo the mother bird off from the nest is so that she will not see you taking her chicks. He likens this case to that of other laws where calves and cows are not to be slaughtered in the sight of each other or on the same day. (Lev. 22:28) From the Rambam, this cluster of laws is all about empathy and the love-bond between parent and child.The cruelty of these actions is not in taking the eggs or eating meat per se (although plenty can argue that those are cruel acts), but in knowing the heart of the mother and the heart of the child and still choosing to take both.
The opposite of acting lovingly in the Torah, is to act with indifference to love.
So strong is the covenant of love in the Bible, that Moses adds the second clause to the commandment, “that you may fare well and have a long life.” There are only two places in the entire Torah where this clause is added to a commandment. The other is found in the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus: “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be lengthened.” (Ex. 20:12) To honor one’s parents is to respect the unconditional love they share, the fear in their hearts for our safety and prosperity, and the hopes and dreams they have for us. So important is this covenant of love that our lives utterly depend upon it.
As we move towards the New Year, let us read the Book of Deuteronomy anew and realize that what the world needs more than anything else now is in this book of love. We must act with the highest forms of attention and intention, not push every advantage or kick someone when they are down, or shoot them in the back. As this New Year begins, let us find our way back from apathy and cruelty and build a world of love. That’s what every parent wishes for their child. It’s what I pray for every Friday night as I smell their hair and pull on their ears. It’s what makes these blessings so powerful, because through love we can make life itself better.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova, may you have a Sweet New Year.