Love or be Loved?
The essential principal of the Torah, according to Rabbi Akiva (Sifra Kedoshim, Parsha 2) is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). It seems, however, that most of us are constantly striving for the exact opposite: we want others to love us. Despite this, Rabbi Akiva’s path, as Hermann Hesse illustrates in a short story, is the path to happiness.
Once upon a time, a pregnant woman went to a holy man to request a blessing for her unborn child. The holy man promised to bestow any blessing she would like, and she asked that he bless the child to be loved by all who meet him.
The holy man hesitated and asked the woman if she is sure that this is what she wants. After she insisted, the holy man gave the blessing, and it came to be. The child was loved by all but, for this reason, they excused his misbehaviors. Growing up in a permissive environment led to his eventual corruption and decadence.
One day, he learned the source of his misery. He returned to the holy man and asked that he reverse the blessing; instead of being loved by all, he requested to love everyone.
A similar point arises from Orson Welles’ film, Citizen Kane. Kane grew up without parents, but was privileged with abundant wealth. All his life, Kane uses his wealth to score popularity, but ultimately he dies lonely in his vast mansion. His last word was “Rosebud.” The movie follows a reporter’s failed attempt to uncover who, or what, is “Rosebud.” In the end, we see that “Rosebud” was the name of a small, seemingly insignificant, object from his childhood — the only thing to which he ever felt truly connected.
Every parent knows this secret. Generally, the parents love while the children are loved, but the greater joy of this love is experienced by the parents.
This insight can have a profound impact on our actions. So often we act or hold back action, consciously or subconsciously, with great consideration as to how the decision will affect our popularity. However, when our main mission is to love, not to be loved, we are free to choose what is right, even if it is not necessarily the popular choice.
Who is Beloved? He who Loves all Creatures
To be loved, one must love. The story is told about Rav Chaim Volozhin that once he had to pass with his students through a dangerous forest. Suddenly, a band of robbers surrounded them and declared their intention to rob them of their money and then murder them. Rav Chaim requested that the robbers wait a few minutes, so that he and his students may prepare for their imminent death. His request granted, Rav Chaim spent this time with his gaze concentrated on the leader of the robbers’ face. After a few minutes passed, the leader yelled at the Rebbe and his students to flee, and Rav Chaim and his students escaped. When the students asked Rav Chaim how the miracle happened, he explained as follows: when the robbers said that they were going to murder us, I became filled with hate and anger. I did not want to leave this world with feelings of hate and anger, so I wanted to overcome my negative emotions, by working on empathy for the band of robbers. Apparently no one had ever looked at the leader with such loving eyes, with so much empathy. Therefore, he could no longer harm us.
We can also learn this idea from Sefer Mishlei (Proverbs): “As water, face to face, so too the heart of man to man” (27:19). Rashi explains (Yevamot 117a): “Just as with water a person looks in and sees in it a face like his face, if his is smiling it is smiling and if his is distorted it is distorted, so too the heart of man is to his fellow man, if he loves this one, this one will also love him”.
Love to the Near and Far
Christianity charged against Judaism that the command to “Love your neighbor” limits love only to “your neighbor”, while love must truly be spread to all of mankind. This claim is refuted a few verses later when the Torah explicitly writes: “And when there lives amongst you a stranger in your land… and you [must] love him like yourself” (Vayikra 19:33-34). We are commanded to love our neighbors and the strangers in our land separately, since love must start naturally from a place of closeness; only from there it can spread to distant places. Starting initially with love for all is often accompanied by emotional detachment, as journalist Yair Sheleg once wondered: Why is it specifically that those societies that most preach humanism suffer the most from interpersonal estrangement?
The truth of the matter is that the Torah comes to remind that love must start from an even smaller circle. The love for “your neighbor” must be “as yourself”. From here we see that man must first love himself. Someone who is not at peace with himself, who hates himself and is not accepting of himself, will ultimately come to relate similarly towards others.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yakov Tzemach
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