Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Neilah - Lessons in Love

Lessons In Love

The Maggid of Kozienicz[1] was a great Hasidic leader. But he wouldn't give the sermon on the holiest of days in his home town. You see in those days sermons would be long, technical and full and rebukes and reprimands. But one Yom Kippur the people crowded around him, and insisted. Eventually they succeeded in persuading him. The Maggid went up to the bimah, stood there for some time, and appeared to be ready to start several times, before .... nothing.
And then finally this,
My friends! I wanted to find sins in the Jews – but I have come to see that you are all holy, because your source is holy and your intentions are good. It is really only the exile of this world that has defiled us. So, may the redemption come and bring us out of exile, and let us say, Amen.[2]
And then he sat down.

I like that story. It's a story about a particular attitude towards Jewish leadership. You have to love Jews to be a Rabbi. Fortunately I do, and even if not every one of us keeps every jot and tittle of every legal command, I think you are all lovely.

It's good to love, it's actually an obligation, a Mitzvah no less to love; you have to love your fellow - that's the one Akiva considered the central organising principle of the entire Torah. Then there is the obligation to love God - that's the first line of the Shema, and the obligation, the most frequently repeated in the Torah, to love the stranger. A whole lot of loving.

It's not that I see myself as any particular expert, but I want to share three lessons in love, three challenges, if you will, to determine if we are doing it right, in the hope that we'll do it better, and do it more in the year to come.

Lesson One
Antigonus Ish Socho, on of the most ancient of Rabbinic teaches said this;
אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס[3].
Don't be like a servant who serves their master in the expectation of receiving a reward, rather be like a servant who serves their master with no expectation of reward.

Antigonus is talking about serving God, but it's a great question to ask regarding all our interactions.

When we are being nice to other people - and we are all nice to other people at least some of the time - are we doing it in the expectation of reward? Doing nice in the hope of getting a reward is OK. It's certainly better than not doing nice things for other people. But the expectation of reward removes the quality of love from an interaction. If you are putting something into a relationship calculating the scale of your investment against the prospect of a dividend you are not behaving like a lover, you're behaving like a financial analyst. Relationships based on mutual reciprocity, calculated on the basis of getting out at least what you put in are what Martin Buber called I-It relationships; not bad, as such, just quotidian, mechanical, dull - the Hebrew word would be Chol - profane.

But when you catch yourself putting more into a relationship than you could ever hope to get out - that's love, that's Buber's I-Thou interaction, that's the fullness of what it means to be a human being, that's holy.

A first test in love - Are you putting in more than you are planning on getting out?

And a second.
You do know, don't you, that love isn't an emotion. It's not something you do, it's something that is revealed by action.

A story.
A colleague, a very successful Rabbi in New York, receives a call from his long-since retired father, who had gone to live in Israel.
Avi, he said, I’m phoning to tell you my plane's been delayed and I'm now coming in to New York on Friday.’
‘Oh Abba,’ responds Avi, ‘That’s terrific, you know how much I love to see you.
I’ll arrange a cab to pick you up at the airport and bring you home and I’ll see you when I get back from the…
‘Avi’ the father interrupts, ‘I said I’m arriving at the airport on Friday.’
‘I heard Abba, and you know how much I’d love to come and pick you up from the airport, but, you see …
‘Avi,’ the voice gets serious, ‘do me a favour, love me a little less, and pick me up from the airport.’

I've told that story before, I love it a great deal. But partly I'm telling it this year because Avi's father passed away in Israel several months ago and at one point, on my Facebook feed, up popped a video of 30 of his congregants who went to the airport to pick up their teacher as returned to New York from the Shiva. They obviously knew that story too - a story in which love is revealed by our willingness to schlep out to the airport; love is revealed by action.

It's a very Jewish approach. The Shema calls us to God, in the Shema, it doesn't mean we are commanded to feel all warm and cosy inside. It means we are commanded to repeat these words night and day, to our children, to put on Tefilin and affix Mezzuzot.

When we are commanded to love the stranger, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to leave parts of our harvest for them, we are commanded to ensure they have enough to eat and clothes to wear. It's our actions that reveal the nature of love.

Golde was definitely on to something in Fiddler on the Roof;

Do I love you? 

For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
If that's not love what is?

Aside from the gender critique - and there is certainly a gender critique - Golde has  a great point - this, all this activity, reveals love.

Officiating at weddings is great, having the best seat at a Chuppah is the a wonderful  perk of the job, and I am touched by the articulations of love that come from the newly engaged. But I would be much more interested in peeking into their future, and seeing how they are behaving in the moments of normalcy and challenge. How are their actions in those moments revealing the true nature of their relationship?

Do you ever find yourself using the words of love to free yourself from actually having to do something loving? I'll admit it, I do. At least sometimes. It's not really good enough, is it.

Maybe the true test of love is the Martian's test - if a Martian dropped into our homes and watched our behaviour would they consider us loving. Or let me do that in more theological language, with our every action revealed and laid bare before the One who knows all, how loving do we appear before our creator?

Test one - do we put in more than we expect to get out.
Test two - what do our actions reveal about our ability to love.

And one more.
It's a little complex. Love, real love, isn't about the object of love.
The point of love isn't to select with whom we share our love. The point is to be loving not discriminating in our love.

There's a clue in the array of objects of love commanded in the Torah; God and then two categories of human; your fellow (it's often translated as 'your brother') and the stranger. In other words you have to love two types of person, the one like you and the one different from you; the humans you naturally are drawn towards and the humans you naturally draw away from.

Admittedly the Christians have made more of play of loving one's enemies than the Jews, but it's the Hebrew Book of Exodus which instructs, 'if you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down, rescue it with them.'[4]
And it's the Hebrew Book of Proverbs which instructs, 'If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat.'[5] We've plenty to say about the importance of loving those we don't in fact like very much.

I'm quite sure that Akiva, in suggesting that loving your fellow is the central principle of the Torah, must have meant we have an obligation to love those we dislike. What, after all, would be the point of a Biblical injunction to love only those we like already? How can that provide a central principle for anything?

True love isn't to be funnelled only in limited directions.
A love that is too busy selecting what, or whom, to love isn't really love at all. At best it's an exercise in self-gratification, we love that which makes us feel better and we turn our hearts away from anything or anyone who doesn't. At worst a fenced-in love could be the cover for a much nastier emotion - hate.

I've long been amused by a provocative insight into the relationship between a Jew and an antisemite. The antisemite, the saying goes, hates all Jews, but has nothing against Shumli, who lives next door. On the other the Jew loves all Jews, but Shmuli...!

Neither Jew nor protagonist emerges from the tale free of taint.
The case I am making is that there is a link between the pejorative notion of being discriminating - that is to say being an out and out racist, and the supposedly non-pejorative notion of being discriminating - that is to say being picky about who or what we love.
We should be working on becoming less discriminating in both senses of the term.
We should loving a lot more and excluding from the bracket of those with whom we share our love a lot less. 
Be more loving, be less picky.

That's my third test of love.
We need to focus our ability to love on being loving, not discriminating.

So this is my Neilah call, it's both simple and complicated.
Be a lover, love more, love better.

Put more into your relationships than you expect to get out from them.
Check and check again that your actions reveal you to be a lover.
And watch out when you find yourself becoming discriminating in choices around love.

Goodness, what a wonderful world we could create together.
What a lovely world.
May we all work to create it in this year ahead,
Let us take these last few moments, before the gates close to commit ourselves to building this version of a new year for us.
And may we all have the merit to enjoy it,

Chatimah Tovah

[1] c. 1737-1814
[2] I came across this story in a sermon given by R. Tirza Firestone, formerly the Rabbi of the Boulder Renewal Community.
[3] Avot 1:3
[4] 23:5
[5] 25:21

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