How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth – and breadth – and height
My soul can reach…
With these famous words, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores what it means to love with an all-encompassing love.
In our Torah portion this week we are instructed that this is the love we should have for God. This deep and comprehensive love is different than previous commandments on the subject.
Earlier in the Torah, we were commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and soon we’ll be commanded to love the stranger, but this week, this Shabbat, we read: “You Shall Love Adonai Your God – with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
This is such a tall order, one could argue this is the toughest commandment of all. It seems strange to command and require an emotion. In general, we don’t typically plot and plan our emotional responses with purposeful thought.
And we are not only supposed to love a little,
but rather with all our heart,
to love with the depth and breadth and height our souls can reach.
Love is probably one of the hardest emotions to describe because it is not quantifiable, nor rational.
My colleague, Rabbi Stephanie Kramer, argues that all three biblical commandments to love hinge on the premise of self-love. She teaches that before it’s possible to love another person or to have faith and love God, we first need to love ourselves.
I think this is why we must be commanded to this emotion. Anyone in an ongoing loving relationship can attest to the fact that true love requires continuous effort and thought. So too is the prospect of loving ourselves.
Loving is difficult. If it was easy we would not need to be reminded of this when we lay down and when we rise up, when we are home and on our way… It is not an easy choice to love, we need to post reminders on our doorposts and on our gates.
We’re also supposed to celebrate love.
Right now we are in the Jewish month of Av. It is best known for the commemoration of the destruction of both the first and second temple, the saddest day in the Jewish year. Yet today was TuB’Av, a holiday of Love.
According to Midrash, TuB’Av is the day we begin to move forward, letting go of our pain felt on Tish B’Av ever so slightly, and begin our journey towards healing. Having experienced true sadness, we’re now primed to truly appreciate a day of joy.
However, this largely unknown holiday often slips by unannounced. It’s the Jewish Valentine’s day, especially in Israel. All of the stores sell love cards, bakeries make special red and pink pastries and love fills the air. This celebratory day goes back to the early centuries of the common era.
In biblical times, young women from all walks of life would borrow each other’s clothes and everyone would dress in white, creating an atmosphere of equality among all the girls, rich and poor alike. They’d go out under the full moon and dance in the vineyards, and anyone who was looking for a wife would go there to find one.
And as if moonlight vineyard dancing while searching for your soul mate wasn’t enough to make it a romantic day, there was also the added benefit that certain biblical restrictions limiting women’s marital prospects were lifted on Tu B’Av. This was the one day of the year that all women could marry outside of their tribe. This was a huge deal.
These opportunities to intermarry with other tribes created a true sense of joy. All of this lending itself to a day of celebrating partnership, perpetuating equality, forgiving former enemies, and allowing love to conquer all.
It sounds like a day that is absolutely worth celebrating if you ask me! It seems like we could all use more joy and Love in our lives. Maybe this is why it was taught that “there never were in Israel greater days of joy than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.”
Now, this strange rabbinic quote teaches us a few important things.
First of all, Yom Kippur used to be joyous.
Second of all, this unknown minor holiday is being called one of our most joyous days while being compared to the holiest day of the year. Why? What’s the connection??
Maybe because they are both built on falling in love. In love with others, in love with ourselves, and in love with God.
As we stand in judgment on Yom Kippur, one of the aspects of self that is being weighed and measured is our ability to love. Not just simply the ability to find love, as we celebrate on Tu B’Av, but our ability to be open and raw and embracing of love. To love with all of ourselves, and to also love ourselves. To be able to count the ways our souls love.
On Yom Kippur, just like on TuB’Av, we dress in white, we equalize our selves with others… taking off our facades, our masks, our protective gear and becoming physically and mentally open by admitting to our selves and a higher power our weaknesses, our flaws, and our vulnerabilities.
Rabbi Sharon Brous describes this as “Yom Kippur Love… A love that starts from a place of deep honesty.” She writes, “Yom Kippur love says: I’m giving you access to my fears, my hopes, to me. I will let you see the best and also the worst of me. I will let you see my soul – and I want to see yours. Show me your scars – I promise not to run.”
I think people struggle to love themselves because there is dissonance between the person they want to be and the person they are. We want to look in the mirror and see a different reflection, Yom Kippur is itself thought about as a mirror. We are challenged to see who we truly are. We pray Yom Kippur Love could exist for all of us, even if only for one magical day. For if we could drop the “act” and be completely honest, we could forgive ourselves, and we might just fall in love with ourselves all over again. This is the essence of Yom Kippur!
If we love ourselves fully, we would have the full ability to love others. If we loved others, the world would be a better place.
Jewish tradition calls upon us to acknowledge that love is active work. The work is never finished. Our love is something in our control. It is not simply a response, it is a choice. It’s a choice we must consciously make every day; it is a choice through actions, when you lay down and when you rise up when you are home and on your way… It is not an easy choice to love others or our selves; we need to be reminded – on our doorposts and on our gates.
The holiday of Tu B’Av and our Torah portion this Shabbat both teach us that love is beautiful and powerful, but it requires both celebration and work. For if we are to stand proud on Yom Kippur, we must have worked hard at loving our neighbors, God, strangers, and ourselves – not just on Tu B’Av when the moon is out and we dance in the vineyards, but all the time. Every day. With all our soul and all our might. So that when asked, How do we love thee, we are able to count the ways.