At the beginning of the summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about love. In part, it had to do with the book I chose for our community wide read – Adam and Eve and Us: The first love story by Bruce Feiler. The book was all about reclaiming that story and allowing ourselves to see Adam and Eve as a model of a robust, resilient and long-lasting relationship. This summer was also the fiftieth anniversary of that famous summer of love. I myself wasn’t in San Francisco or even in the States in 1967 but the ripple effects – the bell-bottoms, the flowers in the hair, the politics and music, reached far and wide –including Santiago, Chile.
It was the summer the Beatles released their famous song-All you need is love. I drove my parents crazy listening to this song over and over again! To mark the anniversary of that famous summer, this past June Time Magazine used the same psychedelic cover from fifty years ago. Sadly, however, two months later, the magazine’s cover story read, Hate in America. The articles, the pictures – were all about that dreadful day in August when white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched down the streets of Charlottesville.
And so lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “love” and “hate” and how these two emotions play out in the stories we read in Torah; stories rooted in the personal lives of our ancestors but which contain much wisdom about the world we strive to build today.
You might be surprised to learn that the first time that the word “love” or ahavah is used in Torah is in this morning’s Torah portion. It’s not where you would expect this word to appear. You might have thought it would first be used to describe the relationship between Adam and Eve. But it isn’t there, which is what makes Feiler’s book and his premise about Adam and Eve being Torah’s first true love story so intriguing.
The first time the word love appears in Torah is to describe the relationship between Abraham and his son. God says to Abraham: “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love and offer him as a burnt offering.” Abraham loves Isaac more that his first son, Ishmael. But the thing is this: Abraham loves God more than Isaac and this love of God blinds him. In many ways the binding of Isaac is a cautionary tale of the harm we’re capable of doing when we put love of God above our ethical values, above treating human beings with justice and compassion.
Interestingly enough, the first time that the word “hate” is used in Torah happens in the context of a love story. It’s the story about Laban who deceives Jacob by giving him Leah, his oldest daughter, in marriage rather than Rachel. When Jacob realizes what has happened he confronts his father-in-law. Laban agrees to give him Rachel provided he works for another seven years. The Torah tells us: “So Jacob cohabited with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah.” And then we read: “Adonai saw that Leah was hated and he opened her womb.”
Did Jacob really hate Leah? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a fascinating perspective. He looks closely at these verses and says – “absolutely not,” Leah wasn’t hated. What the Torah tells us is that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah – which made Leah feel that she was hated. But she was less loved, not hated. And then Rabbi Sacks goes on to say: “love unites but it also divides. It leaves the unloved, even the less-loved feeling rejected, abandoned, forsaken and alone.”
Contrary to the Beatles message, love isn’t all we need. We need to balance love with justice because love is partial, whereas justice is impartial; love is particular, justice is universal. Justice without love is harsh. Love without justice is unfair or so it will seem to the less loved. And if we can’t build a family on love alone, we certainly can’t expect to build a society on love alone!
This image of love and justice competing with each other is at the forefront of Rosh Hashanah. There is a fascinating midrash that imagines that on Rosh Hashanah God sits upon a throne of din, of strict judgment, intending to judge the world according to a harsh accounting. But then, says the midrash, when we blow the shofar God gets up from his throne of judgment and moves to the throne of mercy, of rachamim. As God sits in this throne of mercy and hears the contrition in our hearts, God is filled with compassion and forgives the wrongs we’ve done.
While the image of a male God sitting on a throne is problematic in many ways I do feel that the message the midrash offers about justice and mercy has a lot to teach us about our own response towards those who wrong us. When there is remorse, we need to allow ourselves to move towards mercy. The Beatles might have gotten it wrong when they sung about love being all we need but love or mercy does, at times, reign supreme!
Love, according to my teacher Rabbi Art Green is at the heart of the religious life. This past summer the Hebrew College Rabbinical School had its first ever alumni retreat, which happened to coincide with our teacher marking his fiftieth anniversary in the rabbinate. In reflecting on this milestone, he summarized his “life’s project” as helping his students see Judaism as a path of love. His teaching focused on the three blessings surrounding our central prayer, the Shema. The first blessing expresses the wonder that is creation and the second, God’s love for us. Rabbi Green makes a beautiful and poetic connection between these two blessings when he says:
The trees in the forest stretch upward to receive sunlight, converting its rays into the chlorophyll they need to exist. The sun stands as a metaphor for the divine light, toward which all nature stretches. That is the first blessing. We too stretch forth to receive that same light. We convert it into our chlorophyll; we call it “love,” the stuff of life, that which allows us to be as fully human as the tree is fully tree. Love is the great gift given to us by our Creator (or by human nature, if you prefer) allowing us to reach beyond ourselves. Through the mirror of love we are given a glimpse into the oneness of being, should we choose to open our eyes to it.
This blessing about God’s love which comes right before the Shema – right before we call out God’s oneness – is then followed by a third blessing – the v’ahavta, which we chanted together this morning and speaks of our love for God. Rabbi Green goes on to say:
Just as love has led us to the possibility of seeing and calling out God’s oneness, so does that moment call forth a response within us. We return from oneness with a commandment to respond in love, to turn the mystical insight back into the commodity of loving the other. To be a religious person is to cultivate a heart open enough to receive that love and to reprocess it into love for those around us. That is the whole Torah, spoken while standing on one foot. The rest is commentary.
But how do we translate this beautiful vision into a response for confronting the hate we’ve witnessed? How do we respond to the 917 hate groups that dot the so-called Hate Map that the Southern Poverty Law Center updates on a daily basis? I remember when the leadership of the Southern Poverty Law Center came here – about two years ago, and filled this sanctuary to capacity! Their work – as well as that of other like-minded organizations, like the Equal Justice Initiative headed by Bryan Stevenson has, today, become increasingly urgent.
I am reminded of what Bryan Stevenson said when he came to speak at Ohabei Shalom: the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, it’s justice. This conviction informs his work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination.
The good news is that all over the country people are fighting hate, and standing up to promote tolerance and inclusion. It has been heartening, for example, to read about the significant increase in contributions that the Anti-Defamation League has received in the aftermath of Charlottesville. The ADL is currently the largest provider in the U.S. of anti-bias content in schools and the largest trainer of law enforcement in how to deal with hate, hate crimes and extremism. In an interview this past August its President – Jonathan Greenblatt, said: I think what we have seen in Charlottesville is that it is impossible to disentangle a hatred toward Muslims and a hatred toward blacks with a hatred toward Jews. When we support these institutions we become partners with them in the fight for justice, in the fight against racism, bigotry and hate.
But love and mercy is also within our toolbox for fighting hate. I heard a fascinating podcast on the Daily about a long-time activist in the White Nationalist Movement – his name is Derek Black. It was scary to hear him talk about the Movement. He described anti-Semitism as the glue that kept it together. But he also told the story of his own transformation during his sophomore year in College when an orthodox acquaintance reached out to him, inviting him to spend Shabbat dinners at his apartment. At these dinners they talked about their respective perspectives and slowly Derek began to rethink his position. Today, he has totally broken with the Movement.
Even if this case is the exception, the story is a powerful reminder of the importance of reaching out, one-on-one, in safe settings, to people who hold vastly different views from us about Jews, blacks, gays or immigrants.
I want to circle back to where we started – to our community wide summer reading project, which included not only the book about Adam and Eve but also the recently published book by David Jaffe entitled: Changing the World from the Inside Out. Rabbi Jaffe’s book is about cultivating middot, or attributes that help us do the hard work of social change. He says:
As change makers, we will be much more effective approaching the tasks of organizing and communicating a vision for a different world from a place of simcha, or joy, versus bitterness and anger. Most people yearn to feel more connected and will respond more enthusiastically to a message of building up rather than a vision of tearing down and despair.
In the letter I sent out to the congregation this summer, I mentioned that as I read these two books I had a soundtrack of sorts, playing in my head. It was a verse from psalms, set to a beautiful melody by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. The verse says: olam chesed yibaneh, which means God’s chesed, God’s steadfast love or mercy, shall be established forever. The words are about building a world from love. It’s not quite the same as “all you need is love.” Perhaps it’s our version, a Jewish version, of the famous Beatles song!
And while we know that singing alone won’t bring about a world where everyone treats each other with loving-kindness, we sing to remind ourselves of what we aspire to and to inspire each other to go forward with courage and hope. As Elie Wiesel taught us: the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. I invite you to join Rabbi Berkman and me in singing this beautiful song. It’s simple so I am sure that you’ll pick it up very quickly.
Olam chesed yibaneh, dai, dai….
I will build this world from love, dai, dai,..
And you must build this world from love, dai, dai
And if we build this world from love, dai, dai,…
Then God will build this world from love, dai, dai….