Lessons of Love from the Torah

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx

By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx

Parshat Vayikra

Many of us find it hard to relate to the Torah portion of Vayikra. It focuses on a practice that is no longer in use today. We learn of various types of sacrifices and how they were to be fulfilled on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

One of my now-favorite books, “Eternal Life” by Dara Horn, describes the tone of the sacrificial cult. The ceremonies were full of joy, beauty and community. As an aside, it’s a wonderful book.

We call the worshiping of God on the Temple, “sacrificing.” But the more accurate word is “connecting.” The Hebrew word used in the portion is korbanot. It comes from the Hebrew word karav which means “to approach” or to get close. The Hebrew word seems to mean that if we wish to get close to someone, we have to sacrifice something.

We cannot become close to anyone else when we are focused on our own needs and our own desires. Only when we set ourselves aside and focus on the other can we truly love them. Or put another way, “We possess only that which we give away.” If we are in search of love, the only way to find it is to love. If we need a real friend, the only way to find one is to be a sincere friend. We get close to others by making ourselves vulnerable and come close to them.

Love begins with sacrifice. Real love means sacrificing our own needs to focus on the needs of the other. A wise rabbi taught long ago, “When love depends on achieving a certain goal, love vanishes when that goal is achieved. But when love is not dependent on any goal, that love never vanishes” (Avot 5:18). If we love someone with the goal of fulfilling our own needs and desires, that love will disappear when our needs are fulfilled.

Real love means setting aside our own ego. It is directed toward the other, which means our own self has to be set aside. In a sense, when we love another we are imitating God. According to the Kabbala, when God was ready to create the universe, God contracted to make room for this world. Until that time, God’s essence filled everything.

Until the contraction, there was no room for anything else. This is the notion of tzimtzum “contraction,” and without it there would not be room for a world. The lesson is, you cannot create a world until you contract, give up a little of yourself.

We learn in the Torah of Isaac’s love for his son Essau. It was conditional. Essau brought his father game to eat from the field. Imagine, for a moment what would have happened if Essau came to his father and said, “I’m vegan. Enough with hunting.” How quickly that love based on performance would evaporate.

On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for Jacob was unconditional. She was focused on her son’s needs, not her own. This is the love that will flourish. While it is difficult to see these manipulative parents playing their children against each other, there are lessons to be learned about love.

When we love, we give up ourselves to focus on the needs of the other. We may even have to sacrifice our own needs. But through sacrifice (korbanot), we grow close (karav) to our beloved, whether our neighbor, our spouse, our child, our God. Love demands a personal tzimtzum.

A man had a very strange dream — he saw a house that was giving off a great deal of light. When he walked into the house, he saw all sorts of candles all over the place. Some of the candles were burning bright, some were dim, some were almost flickering out. He found the keeper of the house and asked, “What is this?”

The keeper replied, “Each candle is a different soul living in the world. The ones burning bright are in the prime of life. The ones low on oil and flickering are people who are dying. When the candle goes out, the person dies.”

The keeper of the candles turned his back for a moment, and the man quickly searched for his own candle. He found the candle with his name flickering in the corner. It looked as if it was about to be extinguished. The man panicked and looked around for some more oil to pour into his candle so it would burn brighter. He started to take oil from another candle burning bright. But a hand stopped him.

“That is not how it works here. Your candle does not burn brighter when you take oil from someone else. On the contrary, your candle burns brighter when you give oil to someone else.”

The man picked up his flickering candle and poured oil into several other candles. When he put it down, the flame started burning brighter. Too much wax can smother the flame. By sharing what we have, with a little self-sacrifice we enhance our own light and life. JE

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.



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