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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Love That is Not Dependent On a Thing

Sorry for my month-long silence!  The end of the academic year brought a time crunch.  My post today is a comment I wrote for the Fuchsberg Center's eNewsletter about this week's Torah reading.  If you were at Shevach around this time last year, you may remember I led a Torah discussion about Rabbi Mordecai Finley's concept of higher love and lower love.  One is characterized by the question "What can I do for you?", the other by the question "What can you do for me?"  Here is another view of those two types of love. 

A few months ago, my five-year-old daughter misbehaved and I took away one of her baby-dolls.  That night as I tucked her into bed, she said to me:
"Mommy, usually I love you, but today I don't love you."
"You don't love me? Why not?"
"Because you took my baby away.”
I was amazed by her statement.  Here it was, in the raw, what our sages referred to as Ahava HaTluyah B’davar,’"Love that is dependent on something": a type of love appropriate from a kindergartener, but plenty common among adults as well.  Such love, if it does not mature into Ahava She’eyno Tluyah B’davar, "Love that is not dependent on anything", remains fickle – a love that comes and goes and easily flips to hatred.
Our parsha this week -- B'halotechah -- starts out with hopeful expectations of love.  Hashem gives orders regarding the menorah in the Tabernacle, and Aharon prepares the menorah exactly to Hashem's liking.  Israel and God are preparing a home together.  But before the parshah ends, the Israelites are complaining about the food, then God hurls meat from the skies and kills people off while the meat is still between their teeth.
The food complaints seem as absurd as any family brawl when viewed from the outside.  "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free," the people moan (Num. 11:5).  Rashi asks the obvious question, "If (the Egyptians) didn't give them straw (for making their bricks), could it be that they gave them free fish?"  The explanation, says Rashi, is that the food in Egypt was "free from mitsvot."   God's desert menu may have been delicious; mannah that tasted like honey, or oil pastries, or like any taste you can imagine.  But the mannah was a gift with strings attached, and it's so easy to resent those strings.
Even Moshe gets fed up with the Israelites and turns to Hashem in desperation.  "Did I conceive this entire nation, did I give birth to him?  How can you say to me 'Carry him in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling infant?'" (Num. 11:12)  But were the Israelites really a nation of infants?  Had they not stood  at Mt. Sinai, like a bride at the Chupah?  I cannot accept that Hashem chose a child-bride!  And yet the adults of this nation behave like a bunch of children; whining about water and food, breaking the rules the first chance they get, viewing themselves as grasshoppers next to the giant adults who now occupy their land. 
The Israelites seem like my five-year old daughter, who loves me because of the things she gets from me.  But then consider the reality of the people in the desert, helplessly dependent for the basic necessities of life.  The desert experience was infantilizing. 
An intimate relationship demands interdependency.  But when the dependency is too great, insecurities can diminish both the love and the person.  What if I can't live up to his expectations?  What if he stops giving me what I need?  Why doesn't he give me more?
Any of us who search for God in our lives is not far from the desert.  If we view Hashem in the way generations before us did -- as the Master of the Universe who holds each soul in His hand -- then our dependency is overwhelmingly great.  But if, as is more common these days, we are overwhelmed by unanswered prayers, by our awareness of the cruelties of this world -- then we run to the opposite coast, banishing any sense of dependency on God, and any possibility of loving God, from our hearts.  We must work to experience towards God a mature love: a love based on appreciation and joy, Ahava She’eyno Tluyah B’davar, a love that is not dependent on a thing.   

What is true of our relationship with God is true of the all the adult relationships in our lives.  Grown children must work to transition their feelings for their parents from dependency to mutuality.  Lovers and dear friends must invest in each other, to feel the other's happiness, to feel the pleasure of giving as deeply as we feel the pleasure of receiving.  


  1. Cheryl Birkner MackJune 16, 2011 at 12:37 AM

    The Israelites seem like my five-year old daughter, who loves me because of the things she gets from me.

    Of course it's more complex than that. Shira loves you for other reasons that she can't articulate. Similarly with your thoughts on love of God, expressed in the last paragraph. I'm not sure that unanswered prayers negate the image that God is "master of the universe" In fact I think the opposite. The Master decides who to answer postively and who negatively.
    This is the dilemma of a loving God and an omnipotent God.

  2. Thank you for this insightful comment, Cheryl!
    As with any typology, the concepts of אהבה התלויה בדבר (love that is dependent on a thing) and its opposite are too simple to fully describe any meaningful relationship. But they are useful tools for thinking about recurring patterns within those relationships. My experiences suggest to me that young children are not capable of אהבה שאינה תלויה בדבר (love that is not dependent on a thing.) What would such a high form of love be based on? A pure love may be based on an appreciation of the beauty of the other person -- but very young children do not yet have a subtle, independent sense of beauty. Pure love often emerges from the experience of caring for the other person. I love my children because of what I give them, not what they give me. But children are not yet ready to give of themselves in a deep way. Quite the opposite, they seem consistently to love the people who give the most to them, whether the gifts are material or emotional or both. I believe this is a necessary and healthy stage of development. However, I have met several adults who seem not to have matured beyond it, and then it is very damaging.

    I agree with you about the dilemma of a God that is both loving and omnipotent -- thank you for phrasing it so nicely. But I was trying to call attention to a different point -- the challenge of finding a mature love of God: not the simple, infantilizing faith that emerges from a sense of dependency (so common in extremist communities), nor the atheism that emerges from rejecting that simple kind of faith (so common in most other communities today.) Precisely because of the sorts of dilemmas you described, a mature love of God is not an easy thing to achieve.

  3. I can't speak about love of G-d, but I note that Shira said she didn't love you that night because you took away her baby. The baby is objectively just a doll, but I suspect she has deep feelings for it; it is more than a thing that you gave her, she tries in her way to cherish and nourish it as you do her; this may be largely self-reflexive, but it hints at more.Only a Job can continue to love as fully in such circumstances.