Some of you know that I come from a family for whom musical theater is understood to be the height of artistic expression. (My wife is a former member of Actors Equity, having toured with Phantom of the Opera for 2.5 years.)
But even before I met her, I was always in love with the stage and musicals. You probably do not know this about me, but I can, in fact, sing every note and every lyric of Fiddler on the Roof. When I was 2 or 3, I had a well-worn vinyl copy of the Zero Mostel soundtrack that I used to play on my kiddie turntable. It was scratchy and skipped, but I was hooked.
Many of us have very nostalgic notions about Fiddler, as if it accurately captures a world that was. In fact, Fiddler, when it came out in the early ’60s, was already indulging in a romanticization of the shtetl.
You may recall that in Fiddler, Tevye’s daughters come to him, contrary to his expectations, to tell him who they are going to marry. They want to marry people they love.
“Love,” says Tevye. “It’s the new style.”
Because, at least according to Fiddler, that’s just not how they did it in the old world. Tevye then goes on to ask his wife, “Do you love me?”, a question that had apparently never been addressed in their household before.
A challenge that we face in contemporary Judaism is that most of us have come to believe that while Christianity teaches love, Judaism is about action and justice. That feeling has no place in the Jewish religious context.
That is frankly ridiculous.
Over these High Holidays, I will be speaking about love, because I think that the most important thing we can do right now, at this very moment, is to increase the love.
I have created a little mnemonic structure for the four sermons over these days; I hope you will all be here to hear the complete cycle:
Ahavah (love) =
Ani / I;
Hamishpahah / the family;
Beyahad / together (i.e. community);
Ha’olam / the world.
That is today’s focus: the I. The Ani. And over the remainder of these High Holidays, we will expand outward from the Ani to love of family, love of community, and love of the world. (אהבה).
Before we talk about love of self, I need to explain why love is this year’s theme.
We are living in a time of great challenges to our society. I think that we are seeing a breakdown on multiple levels of inter-connectedness, of social capital, of ability to talk to each other. That has something to do with our retreat into our own individual electronic bubbles with the aid of social media, and a good deal to do with the political rifts that are quite evident today.
One of those factors is, frankly, selfishness. We are, for the most part, all looking out for ourselves. Not enough of us are concerned about the common good. In the last half-century, we have seen the rise of the “Me” generation, of “looking out for number one.” “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko.
Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently published a book about our current situation entitled, The Common Good. Reich presents many examples of how we have lost the sense of working toward the common good.
From a macro perspective, consider the following: Frank Abrams, the CEO of Standard Oil of New Jersey, said the following in 1951:
“The job of management is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly affected interest groups… stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.” Reich claims that at one time, CEOs were “corporate statesmen” who felt responsible for the common good of the nation.
In contrast, consider Martin Shkreli, the young executive who arbitrarily raised the price of a necessary drug from $13 a pill to $750 overnight. Although widely execrated and eventually convicted on an unrelated charge, Shkreli was legally permitted to make this move, and those who needed the drug (and those of us who pay into the insurance system) suffered.
I am sure that we can think of many ways in which we have lost the sense of connection to and responsibility for each other. In many places in America, people do not even know their neighbors. (Here in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we are, of course, bucking the trend somewhat, although how close are we to those around us?)
How can we expect to thrive in such an environment, where we’re all looking out for number one, where we are all lone actors, independent and isolated? How can a sense of the common good even exist?
The antidote to this disconnection is to Increase the love. If there is one thing we need more of in this world, it’s love. If there is one thing that a synagogue, that Judaism should stand for, it’s love.
Now, you may not have heard that in Hebrew school. Judaism has often seemed cold: rabbinic tradition is fond of throwing up barriers, of drawing lines, of delineating clear boundaries. This is kosher; that is not. You can do this on Shabbat; you cannot do that. No emotion; just law.
When you dig a little deeper, however, you will see that ahavah / love is invoked over and over in our rituals, in our texts. In other words, Tevye was wrong! Love is not the new style. Love is actually the old style.
Just a few examples:
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha.
Love your fellow person as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)
Rabbi Aqiva (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b) calls this a “kelal gadol baTorah” – literally, a great principle, that is, an essential, foundational idea upon which all of Torah is based. We will certainly be discussing this more over the next few days.
Rabbinic tradition actually thinks of Torah, in its greater sense, as the manifestation of God’s love for us. And, of course, when we recite the Shema itself, what is the first word of the second line?
וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶך
Ve-ahavta et Adonai Elohekha bekhol levavekha, uvkhol nafshekha, uvkhol me’odekha.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:5)
And some of us might speak of Ahavat Yisrael, love of fellow Jews, and Ahavat Torah, love of Torah, as being essential values.
But, pulling back the lens, love is what has to drive us, not only as Jews, but as members of a wider society that is really in crisis mode. Love is the basis of community; it causes us to work for the greater good; it enhances our lives and our relationships.
To understand the meaning of love in the Jewish way, we have to put the statement “Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” in its proper context. That verse (Lev. 19:18) is found in a part of Vayiqra / Leviticus that focuses on the essential mitzvot between people. Among them we find the obligations to honor your parents (Vayiqra 19:3), to leave some of your produce to the needy (19:9-10), show deference to the elderly (19:32), treat the stranger among you with respect (19:33-34), use honest weights and measures in your business dealings (19:35), and so forth.
Love is essentially a matter of being in relationship with the people around you in a way that benefits the common good. The Torah does not care if you dislike the person with whom you have an exchange in the marketplace; you still have an obligation not to swindle him or her. The covenant of love requires us, on some level, to maintain a system of trust and responsibility with all people, even our enemies.
Our tradition wants – no, requires us to look beyond ourselves, wants us to reach out to others.
And you know what? You cannot love others until you love yourself. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, says the verse. Because love is an all-encompassing thing: it flows from God, with whom we are in relationship, and flows into all of our relationships, including that with ourselves.
But there is a tension here. Consider the following story from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a), a classic conundrum:
שנים שהיו מהלכין בדרך וביד אחד מהן קיתון של מים אם שותין שניהם מתים ואם שותה אחד מהן מגיע לישוב דרש בן פטורא מוטב שישתו שניהם וימותו ואל יראה אחד מהם במיתתו של חבירו עד שבא ר’ עקיבא ולימד וחי אחיך עמך חייך קודמים לחיי חבירך
If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area, there is a dispute as to the halakha. Ben Petura taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Aqiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.
The Talmud is wrestling with the question of whether your love for your neighbor outweighs your love for yourself? Ben Petura says yes, and this love will lead you to die along with your buddy. But Rabbi Aqiva says no: your life takes precedence.
The reality, of course, is that we must balance these two inclinations. Virtually every situation involving other people dwells in the greys. The challenge therein is reflected in this well-known Hasidic story, from Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Przysucha, in central Poland. Rabbi Simhah Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one was written, in Hebrew: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “Va-anokhi afar ve-efer”—“And I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.
We are all faced with the constant dilemma of, am I the most important thing in my world, or should I place others above me? The great sage Hillel said, Im ein ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who am I? Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? (Pirqei Avot 1:13). Is the world created for my sake? Or am I but dust and ashes?
Maimonides actually draws circles to illustrate this point in his discussion of tzedaqah, the giving of charity. What does the word tzedaqah mean? Literally, it means “righteousness.” By taking care of those around us with material donations, we are acting righteously; we are acting out of love. You are at the center of every circle. You are the starting point for love of everybody else. You (singular) have to come first. We cannot love others until we love ourselves. If, as Rambam says, there are concentric circles of caring, where do they all start?
How do we love ourselves? Is it through…
- Buying stuff
- Personal time / alone time
I would argue that, while most of these are good things, they are not necessarily self-love. All of these things, perhaps with the exception of alone time, are physical. And it makes sense that we would consider these things first: material things are always easier to understand, to grab hold of than spiritual things.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells the following tale: A fisherman caught a large pike, and said to himself, “This is wonderful! I’ll take it to the Baron; he loves pike.” The fish is thinking, “Oh, good! There is some hope for me yet.” The fisherman brings it to the Baron’s manor, to the kitchen. The cooks ooh and aah over the fish, chattering about how much the Baron loves pike. The fish is getting woozy, but this sounds hopeful.
So they summon the Baron to the kitchen, and upon seeing the large pike, he says, “Cut off the tail, cut off the head, and slit it this way.” With his last breath, the fish cries out in great despair, “Why did you lie? You don’t love pike, you love yourself!”
We are awash in stuff, and in ways to amuse and distract ourselves. What we really need to do is to nourish the spirit. And I have some good news for you: one of the ways to do this is to do what you are doing right now, that is setting aside time for matters of the spirit. Meditation. Reading inspirational material. Spending time pondering the grandeur of Creation. Introspection. Considering philosophy and ethics. Giving yourself space to grieve. Making a point to be grateful. I would hazard a guess that most of us are not doing enough of these things.
There are two major traditional Jewish ways of doing this: through tefillah, prayer, and limmud, learning our ancient Jewish texts.
Most of us think that tefillah / prayer is “talking to God.” I would argue that actually tefillah is primarily talking to yourself. Not that we hope God doesn’t hear, of course, but the actual Hebrew word, lehitpallel, means, “to judge oneself.” (BTW, it does not mean, “reciting obscure words in an ancient language that I don’t understand.”)
When we are doing tefillah (praying is really just an inadequate translation), we are actually standing in judgment of ourselves. If you’re doing it right, particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you should be taking stock of yourself, doing a personal inventory.
It is an opportunity to “check in” with ourselves, something that most of us rarely do. It is also a way of ensuring that every day, you take a moment to offer some words of gratitude: gratitude for what you have, gratitude for the fact that all (or most) of your body parts still function, gratitude that the Earth continues to bring forth food and rain and daily wonders.
And, by the way, nobody cares if you don’t know the Hebrew words, or when to bow, or cover your eyes. For sure God doesn’t care. Use the words that come to you. Or don’t use any words at all.
The other major vehicle in Jewish life is learning. Many of you have already learned something today about Judaism: that our tradition highlights love as an essential value.
But Judaism’s richness in learning is practically limitless. Many of you have heard me sing the praises of the Jewish bookshelf; its wisdom, once unlocked, can give you the tools not only to love yourself, but also to love your neighbor and the rest of the world. It is our tradition that reminds us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to build peace in this world.
It is our tradition that reminds us to be responsible for the strangers among us. The Talmud says that this principle is invoked 36 times, i.e. double חי / hai. You should love the stranger in your midst enough for two lifetimes.
And it’s not just cracking open a volume of Talmud or a siddur / prayerbook that teaches us to love ourselves. It is also in regular Jewish practice.
Kashrut / dietary laws teach us about taking care that what goes into our mouths is as important as what comes out. Yom Kippur teaches us to be responsible for our behavior. Shabbat teaches us to set aside time to just be present.
(You know, one possible way of loving yourself might be to turn your smartphone off for the 25 hours of Shabbat. Might be worth trying – it’s not so hard. Trust me – I do it every week. And it’s great.)
How do we love ourselves? By finding balance between the material and the spiritual. By learning the value of reaching out to others. By scouring our internals to find the areas that need work. By making sure that we are self-aware enough to separate our needs from our wants and to make sure that our choices are our own and not those of others.
The Hebrew word for “I,” ani, begins with the same letter as “ahavah” / “love”, with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the alef.
But there is something curious about that letter. Unlike any letter in English, the alef is silent. So the word ani starts from a place of silence, an infinitesimally small place. You might think of that place of silence as your very core, that place from which Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring emanate.
That silent alef embedded within each of us is the point from which all love emanates. In order to increase the love, we have to find that alef, to find the love within ourselves and embrace it.
Read the second installment: Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/10/2018.)