Thursday, 01 Dec 2011

Written by Julia Grishchenko

“We send people to the moon and explore space, we use the internet, but nothing changes human relations!” – This is how my friend and colleague, Rene Pfertzel, sadly summarized our conversation about last week’s parashah of “Toledot” a couple of days ago, and the problems of human education failing to keep pace with technological change.

Nevertheless, I think life is wonderful in many ways. Of course, we have enduring problems, but we have a moral and emotional heritage as well. In Parashat “Vayetze,” which we read this week, we are confronted by the emotion of love felt by our ancestors.

I am sure that each of us has at one time or another thought about what love is. Probably more than once! I would say that it is better if you think about this all your life. Because everyone has their own right answer, their own “recipe” of love. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote in his classic novel Anna Karenina: “As there are as many minds as there are heads, so there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” 1

The word “love” is used in different contexts, it carries thousands of connotations and covers the widest range of emotions – from physiology to sophisticated philosophical ideas. “Well, I know what love is!” – each of us can say. And there is a small trick in our use of the word, because “love” is used very often and in different situations, so that its meaning becomes more vague.

The concept of “love” in Judaism is highly important. Everyone knows the commandment of the Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”2 . This commandment is called by Rabbi Akiva “the great principle of Judaism.”

And in the main text of the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael” we read: “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” 3

We can also to talk about the love of parents and children, and even about the love of fish! Let me tell you a wonderful little love story about fish?

One day a fisherman caught a huge pike. Pulling the fish out of the water, and seeing that it was very big, he said, “Okay, I’ll take it to my master – he loves pike!” The poor fish thought to himself: “I still have hope, because the master loves pike!”

The fisherman brought the fish to the manor house, and the butler asked him: “What have you got? ‘” Pike “, – he answered.

“Well, – he said – Our master loves them.” The fish began to think that everything was not going so badly after all. The fisherman went into the house, and although the fish was barely breathing, it still had hope.    It was brought to the kitchen, and all the chefs were talking about the master’s love of pike. But when the fish was lying on the table, the master entered and began to give instructions: “Cut off the tail and the head and chop it so and so.” With its last breath the fish exclaimed in despair: “Why did you lie to me? You do not love fish, you only love yourself! “

Clearly, the poor fish had a problem with linguistics! It was confused by the different meanings of one word.

But despite differences in application, all types of love have much in common. Any love involves strong positive feeling and attraction to an object, whether it is human, an idea or an inanimate object. What is common between ‘loving’ fish, and ‘Love’ with a capital letter?

As the Russian saying goes, let’s check the “harmony of the algebra.” So, there are three components common to all types of love, from the sublime to the most prosaic: the subject (loving), emotion (love) and object (the beloved). The nature of love depends on each of these components and their relationships to each other.

I will not attempt to analyze all the possible manifestations of love because for this exercise every one has their own unlimited experience.

In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s great eighteenth century work (chapter 9) two kinds of love are described: “Love like fire” and “love like water.” The first burns and devours man, while the other comforts and calms.

We characterize them as passionate love, and growing love.4 

The passionate kind begins immediately from the maximum heat of emotions and continues on the same level, the growing one has a slow start and gradually increases.

Both types of love are found in the life history of the Patriarch Jacob. The love of Jacob and Rachel is a love at first sight until her last breath. Such a feeling does not depend on appearance, or on the character of the love object , and even an inability to procreate cannot damage it. Rachel, as the other Matriarchs, Sarah and Rebecca, was barren for a long time.

The love of Jacob and Leah is a partnership, which becomes stronger depending on the good things that they did for each other. To start such a relationship, all that is required is the absence of antipathy towards the partner, as well as the desire to do good things for them. A love like that of Jacob and Leah grows gradually, becoming stronger with the appearance of children and increases in the effort they put into each other.

Attitudes towards children are revealing too: Jacob loves Joseph and Benjamin, because Rachel presented them to him, and he loves Leah for the children that she had presented to him.
Different women arouse different feelings and relationships in Jacob. And I’m not going to compare the qualities and advantages of the two sisters, because I do not want to emphasize the sense of competition among them.

I believe that Orthodox Judaism does not feel much respect for the first type of love. According to an old tradition, the relationship between man and woman should emerge on the basis of marriage-sex-love.

Often we find the statement that from the standpoint of Jewish tradition, “true love” occurs only after the wedding when the couple really get to know each other. A good biblical example of this is the Patriarch Isaac. Rebecca first became his wife, and then he fell in love with her and was comforted for the loss of his mother… (Genesis 24:67). But unlike his father, Jacob meets his love at a well and does not hesitate to talk about his feelings, even prior to the marriage! And we do not see any contradiction in this. I checked the comments of the Sages. Nowhere that I could find does it say that this is bad or unworthy. Accordingly, nothing forbids us from following Jacob, and having vivid and strong emotions.

Jacob and Rachel’s love as it is described in the Torah is beautiful. This is the first description of love at first sight. After seeing her at the well, we read that he “kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept”.5

We see that the two sparked a flame of love in each other from the beginning. Being in this sublime state Jacob demanded nothing in return, and he willingly sacrificed for the sake of it his work, his dignity, his best years. Therefore, the “seven years seemed to him but a few days – because he loved her.”

And all of this encourages us to hope that what follows will be as happy and fulfilling, as in any love story. However, we know what happened then. The story of Rachel, her relationship with Jacob, so full of aspiration, expectation, and hope, was not destined to be realized fully. This is a bitter story of a woman who theoretically had everything, but in the end departed this life at the moment when her desires were just beginning to be realized.

Perhaps, because of the pathos in this story the Torah gives a very detailed account of the death of Rachel – where she died, the circumstances of her death, and where Jacob buried her – in contrast, the burial site of Leah rates barely a mention.

I hold this story very close to my heart and it causes me pain. As a woman, I can empathize with the situation Leah and Rachel were in; they represent a model of human existence confronting the most difficult of destinies and have an abiding relevance for our own lives, and loves.

Julia Grishchenko
December 2011




1 Book 2 ch 7 “Anna Karenina”
2 Leviticus 19:18  
3Deuteronomy 6:5
4 Tikkun ha-Brit, View of the Torah on Sexual Development of a Man  by r. E. Talberg  chapter “About love”
5 Gen. 29:11
Genesis 35:16-20






The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.