You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources. (6:5)
The verse above informs the reader that there is a mitzvah to love G-d. A theological difficulty arises from it: How can love be an obligation? Love is a feeling; either you have it or you don’t. How can one be commanded to have a feeling? That being said, if G-d instructs us to do it, it must be possible. Before delving into this issue, let us first say what love is and what it is not.
Western culture has been heavily influenced by the Greek concept of love – Cupid. You know the story. Cupid flits around with his wings, shoots a man and a woman with an arrow, and – presto – they’re in love. This concept of love dominates the world and deludes us into believing that love is a mystical “happening.” You don’t work on loving people; it either happens or it doesn’t. Love is merely a stroke of “fate,” which implies that there is no effort involved. People who believe that get frustrated when the “universe” has not gifted them love. Traditionally, two people “fall” in love and get married. They just “happen” to “fall” in love – as if they were victims. Loving someone is not really a choice at all. One of the classic love songs of the 1960’s, ” I Only Want to be with You” by Dusty Springfield, exemplifies this:
You stopped and smiled at me
And asked if I’d care to dance
I fell into your open arms
And I didn’t stand a chance
Now, listen, honey, I just want to be beside you everywhere
As long as we’re together, honey, I don’t care
‘Cause you started something, can’t you see?
That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on me
No matter what you do, I only want to be with you.
What is the true definition of love? Rambam (Maimonidies 1135-1204) gives us a parameter with which to work when he explains the mitzvah of loving G-d.
When a person focuses on G-d’s wondrous creations and recognizes His infinite and unparalleled wisdom, he will immediately be filled with love and praise for G-d.(Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)
How do you love G-d? By focusing on His virtues. The first lesson in love is that one needs to learn how to focus on virtues. Let’s apply this to humans. How do you love someone? Judaism defines love as: the emotional pleasure a human being experiences when s/he understands and focuses on the virtues of another human being. The emotion of love, therefore, is overwhelmingly dependent upon how one views another person. That explains how the Torah can command us to ” …love your neighbor as yourself… (Leviticus 19:18). The way we choose to view other people is completely within our control. To attain the feeling of love, the Torah obligates us to focus on another person’s virtues. By extension, we will love them. And the more intimately we know someone and his or her virtues, the deeper our love will become.
The thing that makes this idea so exciting is that it is in our reach. If love comes from appreciating goodness, then it needn’t just happen – I can make it happen. Love is active. I can create it; I can activate it. Just focus on the good in another person (everyone has some). If you learn how to do this easily, you’ll love easily. Even the most negative person has the ability to do this.
The first and perhaps most puzzling thing we need to understand about love is that Judaism does not treat it as merely a beautiful concept or untamed passion; it is an obligation. This might seem cold and intense but that does not mean that it has no magic, allure, or fascination. Of course it contains these attributes but it is primarily an obligation. Becoming a parent is a similar phenomenon. Ask any mother or father if they love their child; we know what the answer will be and it’s not because their son or daughter says “I love you” ten times a day. Now ask how much duty and responsibility are involved? (including years of changing diapers, feeding, clothing, carpooling, and other obligations) When parents are attentive to these things, emotions of love come through regularly. This new way of approaching love is diametrically opposed to the allure, fascination, and magic that many people spend years waiting for but never find. The only way we can make it happen is to view it as a commitment. If either party of a relationship shirks their commitment, the relationship cannot survive–there will be no love. Love does not just happen, only you can make it happen.
As usual, ancient Jewish wisdom has the answer to a question that leaves many people dumbfounded: How can I get the love I want and deserve? The answer is not complicated. If you want to love someone, identify and focus on his or her virtues. It takes much practice and sometimes years to cultivate, but when we learn to use this key, we will gain access to a beautiful and endless world called love. If we are locked out, it means that we haven’t learned to use the key–or perhaps we have chosen not to.