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Rabbi Ilana    Shoftim - Higher Love

08/19/2021 07:38:49 AM


Rabbi Ilana

the act of giving freely inspires the greatest love

Here’s a truth about little children, that is sometimes hard for adults to accept. Children love the people who give to them. 

As they should. Young children have so many needs – physical and emotional – and our biology has programmed us to feel love for the people who provide, whether they it’s attention, or fun, or nurturing, or food.

When I was a little girl in Chicago, my grandmother lived all the way in New York, and she came to visit us twice a year – for the holidays of Sukkot and Pesach. She would always come with a purse full of candy.  My siblings and I loved her for it.

It was just about at the age of bat-mitzvah, that I began to feel uncomfortable with this form of give-and-take. She would hand me a candy and say “I love you,” and I would say “I love you, too”, because I knew that was what she needed to hear. My grandmother was – a wounded soul.  But I was newly uneasy about saying it like that – did I really love her at that moment, or did I love the candy?

Because it’s around the age of bar- or bat-mitzvah that our capacity for love becomes more complex. We still have many needs, and a part of us is always drawn to love the people who provide for us. But we also become capable of a higher kind of love.  Not the love that comes from what the other person does for us. A love that emerges from what we do for the other person. 

This week’s Torah portion focuses on justice. We often talk about justice and mercy as the two values that are in tension with one another. In the framework of kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – compassion and judgement sit across from one another.  Compassion must be tempered by judgement. Judgement must be filled with compassion.

But this morning, I want to entice you to consider that other, more powerful, more slippery, more ubiquitous emotion that flows in and around and through any social system. Love.  Both it’s higher form and it’s lower form. 

Often love breaks on justice, like a waterfall crashing on the rocks.  But sometimes, love can shape justice like the river shapes the canyon.

One of the most ancient books of rabbinic wisdom, Pirkei Avot or Ethics of the Fathers, differentiates clearly between the two types of love. Rather than higher and lower, the teaching from Pirkei Avot names the two forms אַהֲבָה שֶׁתְלוּיָה בְדָבָר, love that is dependent on a thing, and אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר , love that is not dependent on anything.  The teaching goes like this:

כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁהִיא תְלוּיָה בְדָבָר, בָּטֵל דָּבָר, בְּטֵלָה אַהֲבָה. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, אֵינָהּ בְּטֵלָה לְעוֹלָם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא אַהֲבָה הַתְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, זוֹ אַהֲבַת אַמְנוֹן וְתָמָר. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר, זוֹ אַהֲבַת דָּוִד וִיהוֹנָתָן:

 Any love that depends on something, when that thing ceases, the love ceases; and any love that does not depend on anything, will never cease. 

What is an example of love that depended on something? Such was the love of Amnon for Tamar.  

To fill you in – Amnon was a prince, and Tamar was a beautiful princess.  Amnon physically desired Tamar, and he took her by force.  But once he got what he wanted from her, he suddenly hated her and tossed her out.  Lower love – the love we feel for the people who do things for us – is expendable. It doesn’t last.

The teaching from Pirkei Avot continues:

And what is an example of love that did not depend on anything? Such was the love of David and Jonathan.

And so again, to fill you in: Jonathan was also a prince – he was the son of King Saul, and he should have been the next in line to inherit Saul’s throne. David was a threat to Saul.  He ultimately took the throne from Saul’s bloodline, becoming the next king of Israel after Saul.  Jonathan should have seen David as a threat to his future.  But Jonathan loved David. And when Saul attacked David, Jonathan protected his friend against his father.  And by protecting him, he only deepened his love for him. 

This is higher love. The love we feel for the people we help and protect. In a healthy situation, it is the love of a parent for a child. The love of a teacher for a student. The love of friends who give more than they expect to receive. A love that can even wash away enmity – over time – as in Jonathan and David.

Our bar-mitzvah boy today, Trey, spoke to us earlier about the dangers of bribery in a courtroom. He shared the true story of a judge who was swayed by an invitation from an attorney to join him at a party.  All of us are susceptible to the lower form of love – the love of things, the love of people who do things for us. Even the love of praise and honor. The Talmud insists that if a litigant so much as holds a door open for a judge, that judge becomes disqualified. Subconsciously, he will feel drawn to the litigant who showed him that extra favor.

Lower love has its useful place in the human heart. But it does not belong in a courtroom..

What about higher love? Is there a place for higher love in a system of justice?

I believe the answer is yes.  Of course, if two litigants stand before a judge arguing, and the judge already has a loving relationship with one of the litigants – that’s an unbalanced courtroom. Much more so than just a monetary bribe.

But what if the judge feels a higher love for the humanity of both litigants? If he sees his role as helping the litigants find common ground, rather than allowing each to stake as much turf as they possibly can?  Does that sound crazy? But isn’t that what legal mediation is?

Or in criminal law, many of you have heard me speak about the Complete Picture Project, a non-profit organization run by the parents of one of Trey’s CBJ classmates, Rebecca Grace and John Grey. Complete Picture creates videos for people convicted of non-violent crimes to show to the judge just before he passes a sentence. One of their recent clients, Daisy, was convicted of selling drugs. There was no question that she was guilty, and she was facing years in prison. Then the judge watched the Complete Picture video. He learned that Daisy is a single mother, who had been drawn into the drug trade by a violently abusive ex-boyfriend.  The judge saw footage of Daisy reading with her children, helping them with their homework, telling them how much she loves them. After watching those images of higher love, how could he possibly send her to prison, and separate her from her children?  He could not, and he did not.

This week’s Torah portion is called Shoftim, which means judges, and it is, as I said, all about justice: murder and trials, witnesses and judges, battles and kings. But woven throughout is an awareness that justice is a human affair, and easily shaped by higher or lower love.  We learn in this Torah portion that the love of money and sexual pleasure – lower love – can corrupt a king.  Do not allow any one person to  become too wealthy or too powerful.  And we learn that higher love – the love of a newly wed, or of a man who just finished putting in the sweat and labor to build a new house or plant a new vineyard – will soften the heart, and make a man unable to fight a battle.

But I think the ultimate teaching comes near the beginning of next week’s Torah portion, in conjunction with a teaching back in Exodus. 

Next week, we will read that if you should see your friend’s animal stumbling under its load, you must stop and help him with it.

לֹא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־חֲמ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ שׁוֹרוֹ֙ נֹפְלִ֣ים בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָקֵ֥ם תָּקִ֖ים עִמּֽוֹ׃

  If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it. Deuteronomy 22:4

“Do not ignore it”, the verse warns.  It’s so easy to look away. We’re always in a rush. No one plans on seeing an animal struggling at the side of the road – so tempting to avert the eyes.

Back in Exodus, we read a similar commandment, but there it says, if you should see the animal of your ENEMY struggling under its load. You must not refrain from getting involved. You must stop and help:

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃

 When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. Exodus 23:5

What the Talmud does with this pair of verses is fascinating, and quintessentially Talmudic.  Follow carefully, as I take you through a set of Talmudic legal arguments.

First, the Talmud picks apart each word in the two verses, and determines that each verse includes two separate mitzvot. One, if the animal is struggling because its load is too heavy, it’s a mitzvah to help remove some of its load.  Two, if an animal has dropped its load, and your friend — or enemy – is struggling to get the animal loaded again, it’s a separate mitzvah to help load the animal back up.

So now we have four mitzvot – loading and unloading, for your friend and for your enemy.

Unloading for your enemy Loading for your enemy
Unloading for your friend Loading for your friend

And, then the Talmud attempts to rank the priority of these mitsvot – a very Talmudic thing to do.

Suppose you have two animals that are struggling.  One needs to be unloaded, and one needs to be loaded. Who should you help first?  The animal that needs unloading comes first, because the heavy load is causing suffering to the animal. Reloading is just a matter of helping another person get a job done.

BUT – What if the animal that needs to be loaded belongs to your enemy? Ordinarily, the other animal should come first. But in this case, you do the loading first.


The Talmud is explicit.  When you help your enemy, your heart will be softened towards them. And reducing enmity is a higher goal. 

I want to end with a story from my husband’s early career. When he was still a graduate student, he was mistreated by an older colleague. This person stole one of his ideas and claimed it as his own. If it had been me, I’m not sure I would ever have forgiven him. Well, truthfully, this man hurt my husband, and I haven’t really forgiven him.

David was angry too, but he realized that making enemies was not going to help his career. So instead of acting on his anger, he reached out to this colleague and offered to help him with the follow-up experiments.  He also respectfully asked that the colleague acknowledge the intellectual contributions that David had already made. The colleague responded by inviting David to spend some time working in his lab.  They did some good research together and developed a warm relationship. I wouldn’t say a loving relationship – that’s too far – but it was the forces of higher love at work.  By doing good for this man who had done him wrong, David overcame his own anger and was able to reach a point of forgiveness in his own heart. At the same time, he won the respect of this senior colleague.

Justice and compassion must stand in healthy tension with each other.  Lower love pulls them both down. But higher love lifts us all up.  And the best part about higher love, is that it’s not dependent on anyone else. I’m not saying it’s easy to achieve. It certainly is not. The human heart is twisted and complex. We all have deep needs – knots inside, that get in our way. We are often our own worst enemies. But higher love is the kind that is אֵינָהּ תְּלוּיָה בְדָבָר – not dependent on any thing external to us.  It comes only from our own decisions to act with generosity.  It’s the act of giving freely that inspires the highest love.  

May we all be blessed to experience such love in our hearts.

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyyar 5782