Parshas Vayeitzei (5772)
By Rabbi David Zauderer
What I am about to tell you will be painfully obvious to some of you, but to others will be a totally foreign concept – yet this one simple concept has the ability to change the way we ‘love’ in a profound way.
But first let’s begin with a difficult verse in this week’s Torah portion (sorry, but union rules require that Rabbis mention the weekly Torah portion at least once in every essay or sermon).
Jacob meets Rachel and they decide to marry. Lavan, Rachel’s father, works out a deal with Jacob that Jacob has to work for him for seven years before he can have Rachel’s hand in marriage.
The Torah then states the following: “So Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20).
Did you catch that? Did the Torah just tell us that for Jacob, seven years felt like a few days because he loved Rachel so much? Does that make any sense? I mean, you have to remember that the Torah is talking about actual events that happened to real people just like you and me. So how is it that for all of us, if we have to wait even a few days for someone or something we truly love and crave, it feels like seven years, yet for Jacob it’s the opposite? Has human nature changed that much since ancient times?
Of course, the real answer is not that human nature has changed – it hasn’t – but that our definition of love has morphed into something very different than what Jacob was feeling for Rachel during those seven years that he waited for her.
As Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski M.D. points out in his book The First Year of Marriage (Mesorah Publications) , the prevailing romantic concept of love in modern society is really self-love. The other person is a vehicle whereby one satisfies one’s own needs.
This distorted concept of “love” is best illustrated by the comment of Reb Mendel of Kotzk, who saw a young man enjoying a tasty piece of fish. “Why are you eating the fish, young man?” Reb Mendel asked. Rather surprised by the question, the young man responded, “Because I love fish, that’s why.” Reb Mendel said, “And it is because of your love for the fish that you fished it out of the water, killed it, and cooked it? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good piece of fish,” Reb Mendel said, “just don’t fool yourself. You do not ‘love’ fish. You love yourself and you wish to satisfy your desires. It is out of self-love that you killed and cooked the fish”. When we have “fish love” for someone else, then being forced to wait even a few days or minutes before we can satisfy that desire can be quite painful and can feel like seven years.
True love, as defined by the Torah, is not fish love but something very different. Judaism defines love as the emotional pleasure one experiences when he/she finds virtue in another human being and identifies the person with those virtues.
In other words, true love isn’t something that just happens to a person – “I saw her and just fell in love” – love is a choice we make. If love comes from appreciating the virtues in someone else, it needn't just happen ― we can make it happen. Love is active. We can create it and maintain it – even when we are upset with each other - by consistently focusing on the good in the other person. [For an elaboration on the Torah’s definition of love and all its many ramifications, see Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s article Friendship, Love and Unity at http://www.aish.com/sp/f/48961286.html and Gila Manolson’s article What is Love? at http://www.aish.com/d/w/48952241.html ]
The Malbi”m, in his commentary to this week’s Torah portion, writes that Jacob’s love for Rachel was not self-love, for such a love would have made a few days of waiting for her seem like seven years. Rather, it was real love that Jacob felt for Rachel – he saw her goodness and her special qualities and identified her with them – and that is why he was able to wait seven years and yet it felt like a few days. It is for this reason, explains the Malbi”m, that the Torah ends off the verse with the words “…because of his love for her”, i.e. he loved her, not himself.
If only we would recognize the difference between fish love and true love, the world would be a very different place. If, when we say “I love you”, all we are having is merely fish love, then our primary focus is on the good feeling we get inside when we are around this person. But that is not the kind of love that will last through all kinds of tests and strains. It is merely a love of the pleasure we get from this relationship (maybe we can call it romance) - and when the pleasure is gone, or when problems arise, the love might dissipate. The skyrocketing divorce rates in North America are a tragic testimony to this distortion of what love is.
Only true love, where one chooses to identify with the goodness in his partner, has the ability to weather all the strains and difficulties that are an inevitable part of every relationship.
Unfortunately, the word love has been distorted so much in the way it is used in our everyday speech that it might be incredibly difficult to correct. After all, in the English language, one can express ‘love’ for many things. One can ‘love’ one's spouse, one's parents, one's job, or even a good piece of cheesecake. So how can we just ‘switch gears’ when it comes to expressing true love, as defined by the Torah?
And don’t forget that famous slogan prominently featured at every single McDonald’s restaurant: I’m Lovin’ It. That pretty much says it all about modern-day western society. We are in love with cheeseburgers and fries. Would you like marriage with that?
But I believe that there is an even bigger problem facing us today which might make it near impossible for our society to bring back true love as it was meant to be.
You see, we live in an “iPod generation”. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, recently remarked at an interfaith reception attended by the Queen, in November 2011, in which he criticized the recently deceased Apple founder Steve Jobs, who he said helped create a selfish consumer culture that has only brought unhappiness. "The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i’, you don’t do terribly well.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. We live in an iCulture where it is all about i and me. Even the Botox ads use the tagline: “For Me, Myself, and I”. No wonder our love is self-love. We are so self-absorbed and so used to self-gratification, that it is almost inevitable that the primary focus of any love relationship we pursue will be on our own pleasure, instead of focusing on the virtues of the other person. It is very hard to say (and truly mean) “I love you” when society trains us to constantly say “I love me”.
I am not a prophet and I don’t know what the future holds in store for all of us and our children, but you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see the writing on the wall. We need to get back to the Torah’s definition of love – the kind of real love that our forefather Jacob felt for our matriarch Rachel when he waited all those years for her – or else we will suffer the consequences of so many failed marriages and broken homes. The choice is up to us.