Work of Love

Love certainly includes a fairy-tale aspect.

No one can really say completely why he or she loves someone. The special ingredient can’t be found in a list of personal qualities or favors done. When you love someone, you perceive them with your heart. A special quality, visible only to your spiritual perception, shines through.

Love also includes what many people call “work.”

The Hebrew word for work is avodah. In ordinary colloquial Hebrew, avodah refers to ordinary work, like cleaning out the garage, building a house, attending meetings – anything you might do as a laborer, professional, or volunteer. But in religious discourse, avodah refers to spiritual work. In Biblical and Temple times, making an offering was called avodah; in Talmudic times, praying was called avodah; in Hassidic times, self-examination and repair was called avodah.

Love involves avodah – spiritual work on self.

Parshat Re’eh offers us, in coded form, some instructions for this kind of work.

Here Moshe presents some challenges the Israelites might face when they enter a new land, and interact with a new culture. How will the Israelites preserve the national spiritual vocabulary and practice that they worked so hard to learn over the last forty years? How will they hold on to these core pieces of spiritual identity as they adopt a new way of life? Torah says:

When God cuts off the nations, and you inherit their land and live in it, don’t fall into the trap of following their ways. Don’t say to yourself, ‘How did they worship God? I’ll do that!’ Because they would even burn their sons and daughters for their gods. If a close friend or relative suggests you follow these ways, don’t agree and don’t listen. Seek, investigate, ask what is best. (from Deuteronomy 12:29-13:15)

Harsh measures – especially when we read them living in a tolerant, peaceful society. We might choose to set them aside until they seem relevant. Or, we might choose to read in a Hassidic style — to interpret these words a bit metaphorically, as teachings about human psychology that are relevant every day we are called to talk about love. From this perspective, Torah says:

When you commit to a relationship, you enter a new landscape. You must displace entire populations of old ideas about how to live and get along with other people. It may not work anymore to ask yourself, “How did I used to organize my time and space?” The old ways may no longer be compatible with your new partner. It may not be helpful to ask yourself, “What styles of speaking kindly worked well with other people I know?” Your new partner will have different sensitivities and needs. Old, familiar ways of living that may have soothed you in the past may now burn those you love. People who have known the old you will offer advice. The advice won’t always be on target, as you re-discover yourself as a partner in the new relationship. You will have to do a great deal of inner work, investigating, analyzing and feeling everything in new ways. A new best you will emerge over time.

Perhaps this work isn’t so far from the fairy tale aspect. What might motivate a person to invest this much psychic energy in spiritual work? Ideally, the spiritual perception that makes love possible, and the intuition that love calls you to change for the better.

***Join me  for a Philosopher’s Cafe: “Spirituality in a Love Relationship,” moderators Laura & Charles Kaplan, October 24, 7:30-9:00 pm at Or Shalom.***

I offered this Dvar Torah at Or Shalom Synagogue in honor of the anniversary celebrations of Dael & Zelik, Motti & Karen.


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