Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two Torah Models of Love

Western art and literature are replete with famous examples of love.   Romeo and Juliet; Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristan and Iseult; Orpheus and Eurydice.  Even some actual couples are held up as paradigms of love: Napoleon and Josephine; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  What all of these couples have in common is frustrated love.  The couples face some obstacle – familial disapproval, prior commitments, or death.  The subconscious message is that love is only real if it’s opposed or complicated.    Love is held to be tempestuous, impetuous, nonsensical and chaotic.

The Torah model is quite different.  The normative model of love portrayed in the Torah is stable love, which grows stronger with every passing year.  The paradigm that is held up is the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, the first Jewish marriage.  The Torah states that after Yitzchak brought   Rivkah into the family tent, “She became his wife, and he loved her.”  Rather than viewing the marriage day as the peak of happiness, and everything that comes after as anti-climactic, a Torah marriage begins with a basis of mutuality and compatibility, and grows from there – it is not the peak of love, but the source of love.  This ensures a stable relationship that grows ever stronger.

Does this mean that the only Torah model portrayed is one of stability?  No, the Torah also depicts “love at first sight” marriages.  But these relationships require more work to attain stability and eternity.
Let’s look at the example of our forefather Jacob and foremother Rachel.  The Torah tells us that Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, and because of his great love for her, it was “like a few days.”  This is surprising – if he loved her so much, shouldn’t it have seemed like a long time?
To understand this, we need to think about the true meaning of love.  We use the word "love" loosely, to cover everything from deep emotions to casual likes.  The common definition of love is based on selfish considerations – what I feel when I’m with my beloved, how I imagine our relationship to be, what my partner can do for me; I, I, I.  But that’s not true love, it’s self-centeredness.  True love is selfless.  True love wonders, "How do I make my spouse feel?"  "What can I do to improve my relationship?"  True love places the other person primary. 
Jacob’s love for Rachel was not about his feelings, gratifying his desires, what he wanted from the relationship.  It was about placing the other person first and primary.  Considering how much Rachel meant to Jacob, he would have worked for fourteen years for her – she was worth much more to him than the ‘mere’ seven years.  That is other-centered love, not self-centered love.
·         What can you do, to reflect true love for your partner?

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