Tu B’Av, the sixteenth of Av, is described in the Mishna (Ta’anit 4:8) in terms of romantic love, with the maidens of Yisrael, wearing borrowed (so no one would feel embarrassed) white dresses, dancing in the vineyards to attract a husband. Coming less than a week after Tisha B’Av, our national day of mourning, it’s always associated with Parshat V’Etchanan (Devarim 3:23-7:12), which begins with the heart-break of Moshe’s unrequited love and unfilled desire to lead the Jewish People into the Land of Israel but then transitions into demonstrations of God’s Love for us. It restates the Aseret HaDibrot, The Ten “Commandments” (Devarim 5:6), i.e. the giving of Torah to the Jewish People, and later features the Shema (Devarim 6:4-9) whose second verse (6:5) begins, ….וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ (V’Ahavta et Adonay Elohecha b’chol l’vavecha), “And you will love God with all your heart….). In between there are even more references to love.
The emphasis on love is not confined to this one day or even one parsha of the year, but, rather, is integrated into our daily services as well. The evening Shema is introduced (Sephardi nusach (liturgy)) with the words אַהֲבַת עוֹלָם בֵּית יִשְׁרָאֵל עַמְּךָ אָהָבְתָּ, תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת, חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים, אוֹתָנוּ לִמַּדְתָּ, “You love Your nation Israel with Eternal/Infinite Love, You taught us Torah, commandments, rules and regulations….”
Wait a minute! What’s going on? Have we suddenly jumped from a holiday of love and comfort and even a daily reminder of infinite love to “the rule book”? Is this the original “bait and switch”? Are we being bribed with words of love in order to be bamboozled into mindless obedience? Something seems very much off.
Or does it?
Most therapists, marriage counsellors and, yes, rabbis identify one of the leading causes for couple-failure as communication breakdown. While our desires and expectations of our mate, and hers of us, don’t change, they become unfilled because we no longer know what they want us to do. Committed love is more than initial passion, but an ongoing process of pleasing each other, of putting the other before oneself. While pop-psychology has become expectation-averse, we sell ourselves and everyone around us short when we assume that expectations oppress. Not having the capacity to read minds, we need to be told out loud what is expected of us and we also need to explicitly express our expectations. Confidence in our lover’s ability to fulfill our (legitimate) desires is an expression of love and respect.
This is the secret to why we consider the Torah, often defined as a “garment” for the 613 Mitzvot themselves, an expression of God’s Love. Just as we want our beloveds to grow, to fulfill themselves, to rise to every challenge, God wants us experience the self-respect that is only generated when one pleases their lover.
Discussing the requirement for kosher-supervised cheese, the Mishna (Avoda Zara 2:5) discards one proposed reason after another until concluding with a seemingly irrelevant verse from Shir HaSirim (Song of Songs), the Megilla (scroll) Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) wrote to describe the love between God and the His Nation. The inference is that even when we’re not presented with a satisfying reason, pleasing our lover is itself more than sufficient motivation. We’re taught that concretizing our warm feelings into action, and for this we’re guided by the mitzvot, is how we actualize the אור אין סוף (Or Ayn Sof), God’s Infinite Light, into our material world.
So, yes, the Torah, Mitzvot, Chukim and Mishpatim, the instruction, commandments, rules and regulations express God’s love by presenting us with a path to, beyond glibness and lip-service, love God back.
Read the sequel to this article, Is This All Love Is?