A Day of Love
This sermon was given by Rabbi Steven I. Rein on Yom Kippur 5778, September 30, 2018.
You can email Rabbi Rein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently had a conversation with a Holocaust survivor about prayer who said something very poignant. She told me: “I have no problem reciting the beginning of the Shema – shema yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad – hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one. I have no problem saying that God exists and that God is one. But I can’t say the next verse: v’ahavta et Adonai elokekha – And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. Every day I skip that line.”
I have been thinking about this conversation a lot recently. Throughout this solemn day, we recite over and over God’s thirteen attributes: Adonai Adonai el rahum v’hanun – among which God is described as abounding in love. What exactly does God’s love for humanity mean? And, perhaps more importantly, what does our love for each other mean? We are living in a time of such divisiveness that has permeated all facets of society and our communities. Invariably many of us are sitting here with a lot of bottled up anger and hurt. Can we find love again? Can we be like God – abounding in love – and find room to let others back into our hearts? Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day of repentance and forgiveness. I would like to suggest that today is also a Day of Love – a day we commit to renewing our relationships with God and with each other.
Of all the stories, commandments, and laws in our tradition, there are two verses from the Torah that get to the heart of human relationships and all their complexities. “Do not hate your brother in your heart; rather rebuke your neighbor and do not bear sin because of them. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people; v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha – you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord” (Lev 19:17-18). We have all likely heard this before. It makes for a cute bumper sticker – love your neighbor as yourself. My problem is: I don’t know how this is supposed to work. We begin by saying, “don’t hate your fellow,” and by the end you are supposed to “love your fellow.” I can understand the merits of not harboring ill feelings in our hearts and the value of externalizing our thoughts and opinions. But how do we go from hatred of someone who has done us wrong to loving them? This seems overly aspirational – even for Yom Kippur.
In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides claims to have the answer. He takes these verses and says the only thing you need to know is: don’t bear sin because of another person. What exactly does that mean? Perhaps it means that if you don’t reprove someone you are actually responsible for their wrongdoings. If you don’t reprove someone you might bear hatred in your own heart which itself is a sin. Perhaps it means we should avoid sinful behavior in the way we reprove others. I don’t know. What I do know is that none of these explanations actually tell us what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Does loving your neighbor mean that if, for example, you win the lottery, you have to pick someone else, your “neighbor” or the person sitting in the row behind you and split the money 50-50? And who is your neighbor? Any fellow human being? Fellow Jews? The guy that sometimes gets your mail? Are there not some neighbors whom it is impossible to love (and who, in any case, do not seem to merit such love)? And, what is the relationship between love and hatred in our lives?
The answers to these questions not only emerge from this sacred day, they have the power, if we act on it, to be transformative.
I want to begin by looking within the biblical text itself. Nestled within the wisdom of Proverbs we learn that our hatred of others can actually lead to love. What kind of love? Them loving you. “Reprove not a scorner, lest they hate you; reprove a wise person, and they will love you” (Prov 9:8). The relationship between hatred and love has nothing to do with you coming to love the person you’re reproving but the other way around. Perhaps, they might come to appreciate that you brought your thoughts and concerns to their attention. The text continues: “Give to a wise person, and they will be yet wiser; teach a righteous person, and they will increase in learning” (Prov 9:9). In other words, if you share your hurt with someone who is righteous, they will actually increase in their wisdom as opposed to being unresponsive or resentful that you critiqued them. Lest you are wavering on whether you should really pour out your heart, the Book of Proverbs actually condemns the person who doesn’t do this as the real sinner. “One who conceals their hatred is a liar, and one who utters slander is a fool” (Prov 10:18). It isn’t simply that you are lying by feeling one way on the inside and another on the outside. If I’m not telling you what you did wrong, I’m probably telling someone else.
What Proverbs is trying to teach us is that somehow the ability to use our voice, to voice what’s on our mind, to voice disagreement, and to voice hurt, will lead to love on the other side. The alternative only leads to the festering of hatred, slander by the person who may have been hurt, and cuts off the opportunity for the other person to appreciate you. Understood this way, ahava does not mean love. Rarely do we ever criticize someone to which their response is: “I love you for this.” But they might say: “I appreciate you for this.”
A challenge we often face when it comes to biblical commandments is trying to understand them not only within a modern context but within the biblical narrative. Perhaps the command to “love your neighbor” is not part of a disassociated string of laws but actually part of a story. Before we are told not to hate your brother in your heart, the Torah tells us not to go up and down as a talebearer among your people. Perhaps this is a story of an individual who has slandered someone and as a result the slandered individual hates that person in his heart and doesn’t want to speak to him. This is, of course, the biblical story of…Joseph. The story begins when Joseph is feeding his flock along with his brothers and decides to bring an evil report of them to Jacob. The first individuals to utter slander are not the brothers; the first person to utter slander is Joseph. The story continues. Not only does Joseph utter slander about his brothers – whether what he said is true or not – Jacob actually loves Joseph more. The brothers, seeing that this was the case, hated Joseph. They could not even speak to him peacefully, nor could they reprove him for his actions. Joseph just continued to share his fanciful dreams, causing his brothers to hate him even more.
What if the commandments in Leviticus are actually about Joseph and his brothers? If so, we have a very different understanding of what’s going on here. This isn’t: you wronged me and now I have to decide whether I am going to rebuke you or not. There is probably a cycle here. I imagine that at some point in the past, I might have wronged you. Or, you might have perceived that I wronged you. So now you are mad at me. When this occurs we get stuck in a cycle of people becoming alienated from each other. Is this starting to sound familiar? You did something that hurt me and instead of talking to you, I’m going to tell mom or dad about it; instead of talking to you, I’m going to tell my friends about it; instead of talking to you, get ready for this, I’m going to write a letter to the editor about you in the newspaper. What happens now? You do the same thing. What I’ve done to you is problematic and instead of talking to me about it, you decide that you are going to behave in precisely the same way. Perhaps, to “love your neighbor as yourself,” is telling us: break the cycle. Somebody at some point in this cycle of anger and hatred has to say: “Enough! I love you as myself and I am going to end this.” Even so, I’m still not sure this gets to the heart of what love really means.
This morning, we are sitting here with several hundred members of this community. Imagine we were in a smaller more intimate group. A group that is charged with creating boundaries for the community, deciding who is in and who is out. If there ever was a group of Jews that knew about creating boundaries – in the most intensive way – it was the sectarians at Qumran. The Qumran sect was a group of Jews that lived in caves during the time of the Second Temple. They thought that the rest of Jewry was corrupt (you can rewrite this story in every generation, except it doesn’t have to be a cave). They looked at the world as a system of dualism – forces of good (that’s them) and forces of evil (everyone else). They are the Sons of Light and everyone else – the Sons of Darkness. To ensure they remained distinct, the sectarians at Qumran created a communal code of conduct, known as the Manual of Discipline. Reinterpreting our commandments about love and hatred they wrote: “One must not reprove or argue with the Men of the Pit (those seen as outsiders and inimical to the sect). Instead he must reprove with true knowledge and righteous judgment only the chosen of the Way, each according to his spirit and according to the norm of the time. He shall guide them with knowledge, and instruct them in the mysteries of wonder and truth in the midst of the Men of the Community, so that they may walk perfectly each one with his fellow in everything which has been revealed to them” (1QS 9:15-21). While the Qumran sect was by no means normative – neither in their own time nor in ours – they say most clearly what our verses might mean. To whom are we willing to give reproof? To those we love – to those within our inner circle. It’s not that hatred is going to lead to love, but if you have that sense of love, that’s the only way you would rebuke someone in the first place.
When the Torah instructs us not to hate someone in our heart but to love them as our self, this is not mathematical causality. This is not: if I don’t hate you in my heart and I tell you how I feel, you will now love me. Or I will now love you. Or I will necessarily stop the cycle. The only reason I would reprove you to begin with – and not just walk away from you – is because I love you. That is not affective love – that’s loyalty. Perhaps love your neighbor as yourself is really “be loyal to your neighbor as yourself.” When does this manifest itself? Not when others are doing the right thing. Not when they are being nice to you or keeping communal norms. It’s when there is friction and hurt that our loyalty is tested.
Albert Hirshman, in his book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, tries to figure out what it is that brings politics and economics together. What he realizes is that politics and economics are two responses to a similar phenomenon – decline. If you see decline, you have one of two choices. From the world of economics you have exit. You can leave. Just stop buying the product. That’s how companies know when something is going wrong. From the world of politics you have voice. You can petition, you can lobby, you can argue, you can write. The difference between whether a person is going to choose exit or voice is loyalty. The same is true with our interpersonal relationships.
I think this is really important for two reasons. First of all, loyalty does not mean I sit quietly when I disagree with those to whom I am loyal. The Torah’s vision of loyalty is that if I am loyal to you, and you are doing what I perceive to be wrong, either to me or someone else, than I am going to tell you. We are going to talk about it. The second reason this is important, and this is a bit counterintuitive, is that it forces us to ask whether there are limits. What happens when out of my loyalty to you, and insert here whatever you want (friend, parent, child, sibling, Millennials, Jewish community, this denomination or that), what happens when I’ve told you time and time again that this hurts me or I think what you are doing is wrong, and you won’t change. What happens when what you’ve done is so beyond the pale that I can’t really talk to you anymore? You’ve now lost the loyalty that I once owed you. Think about this for a moment. Are there individuals in your life that have lost your loyalty? Who are they? What about in the Jewish community as a whole? Society at large? Can we repair the breech?
The early 20th century Biblical scholar Arnold Ehrlich posits that the traditional explanation of “love your neighbor as yourself” is both intrinsically and linguistically wrong. To love one’s neighbor as oneself, if it is humanly possible, is not everyone’s concern. The Torah is intended for the person in the street, and not just for starry-eyed idealists. Later on in Leviticus 19 we read: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, v’ahavta lo kamocha – and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:33-34). What does loving your neighbor as yourself mean here? It has nothing to do with how much you love yourself or whether you love yourself at all. Rather, “like yourself” should be read as “who is like you.” In other words, love your neighbor because…he is just like you. Love the stranger because…he is just like you. There are those we feel connected to because we share similar experiences with them and there are those we feel connected to because of a shared peoplehood and covenant. As we continue to move apart from each other as a society can we still fall back on the other being just like you? When relationships with family and friends become estranged, can you still see that individual as just like you? Remember, loyalty is not only for when relationships are good. Loyalty is particularly needed when relationships have soured. It is at that moment that we need to be able to raise our voice and say: “Things are not going so well. Let’s talk. I’m not leaving, but let’s have a conversation.”
In her book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Martha Nussbaum paints two pictures of what it means to be in a relationship. One picture is the emotional picture – I love this person, I appreciate this person, I feel a kinship with this person. The other picture is cognitive – what does this person mean in my life. Nussbaum suggests that true love should incorporate both. Why do I love someone? Because, as Nussbaum suggests, I understand their salience in my life. I understand that they matter. I understand the important role they play. If we think of love as merely an emotion, we are missing what emotion is actually based on and grounded in. Emotion is grounded in an understanding of our relationship with another person. That’s something we can train ourselves in. Remember v’ahavta et Adonai elokekha. This is not about loving God, this is about being in a relationship with God. The verses that follow do not describe doing discreet actions, they describe the obligation to carry around the covenant. Have it on your door post, wear it on your heads, talk about it all the time. Meaning: keep the loyalty, keep working on it. This loyalty document is not simply a reflection of the value of God in our life, it is supposed to train us to see that value. It is supposed to condition the way that we think, and hopefully emotional love will be built on top of that. So too in our relationships with each other. We need to re-evaluate the bonds that tie us together – expanding our inner circle. We need to work on seeing the value in each other. We need to learn, once again, how to love each other.
Our challenge today, and every day is: how do we actually build a sense of value – a sense of loyalty – among each other, our families, our friends and neighbors, fellow Jews, and the community at large, especially when there is so much that is deeply disappointing in each of those interactions? How do we do it? What is it based on? We have to first understand what our loyalty is all about and how we can recreate it in a time when that loyalty is cast into shadows of doubt. We can begin by affirming that loyalty is not about suppressing our views and opinions. Loyalty is not about being quiet. Loyalty is about engagement. Confront that friend of yours. Call that sibling who you haven’t spoken with in years. Approach the congregant who you refuse to sit next to. Break the cycle. Can you bring your anger to the table while maintaining your loyalty to one another and to the greater community in which we live? Can we, within this community, see each other as being just like me?
In thinking back to my conversation with the Holocaust survivor, what God’s love for the Jewish people means, and our commitment to renewing our relationships with each other, we need look no further than this very moment. After all, what is Yom Kippur all about? The suggestion and the declaration that I am loyal to you, that I will keep coming back to you, but you have done wrong, and you need to know it and you need to admit it. The rabbis tell of a king, who in a fit of anger sent his son away from his kingdom to live in a foreign land. Years passed, the anger subsided and the king sent a messenger to his son that he longed for his estranged son to return. The son sent the messenger back to the king explaining that the hurt remained, the distance was too great, he could not – or would not – make the journey. The king received the message and sent back the following reply: “Return as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.” That’s the model of Yom Kippur – a model of love, a model of loyalty, and a model for all our relationships. V’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha – may this be the year that we look at our loved ones, our family and friends, and our community, and say: I love you, let’s talk, let’s meet each other halfway. And, please God, may we each answer the call because your fellow is just like you.