Today is Tu b’Av, the holy day that celebrates all the love in the world and beckons us to pour more love forth. Love is a central theme in Jewish life, and some would argue it is at the core of what it means to be Jewish.
To love is actually a mitzvah, a commandment — v’ahavta lareicha kamocha — love your neighbor as yourself. And in the Shema, said three times a day — v’ahavta adonai elocheicha bchol levavcha — love your God with all your heart.
These are worded like commandments — you must love. But can we really be commanded to love? Isn’t love something organic that wells within us, that inspires us and calls us into service of another, that fills us with the feeling that everything is whole and sometimes instills in us the fear of loss? Can you make yourself love, or make someone else love you?
We all know of loves that have died away. Close friendships that faded, lovers that fell out of love, marriages that lost the love they were formed by and could not recover it. When I decided to get married, I felt burdened by the possibility that one day, that love between Jon and me could disappear, and I wouldn’t have any control over it, would not be able to find it. On my wedding night, I saw all my family and friends celebrating the triumph of love, and I thought to myself, what if it doesn’t last?
The rabbis claim that love cannot just disappear, because love is not a feeling that comes and goes; love is a consciousness, an orientation to the world. Hillel HaGadol, arguably the greatest Babylonian rabbi, said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.” For Hillel, love is the emotion or intention you foster in yourself to orient you towards the good.
We must work on loving the right things, and we have powerful examples of that in our tradition. It was out of love for her little brother, Moses, that Miriam followed him down the Nile, arranging for her mother to care for him. It was Abraham’s love for God that led him to leave all that he knew and bring loved ones and strangers alike under the wings of the Shechina. Our ancestors’ loves led to greatness, to family, to the pursuit of truth.
Baal HaTanya, a great Chasidic master, teaches that although we rebuke our fellow Jew for mistakes, for the ones that are unlike us and don’t follow our ways, all we must do is love them. Only through love can we bring people into our world and into learning Torah, the ways of justice and righteousness.
And how do we achieve this kind of love, the love that does not fade, the love for a stranger? We must begin with ourselves. The more you understand yourself, the more you can open up yourself to love, and the greater your capacity to love others. This kind of love takes work. It means waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror, and recognizing the spark of the divine that is within you, and accepting yourself with all your quirks and gifts, and loving them. It means reminding yourself that every person you ever meet has a natural desire to love and be loved, and deserves love.
So perhaps the commandment is to work on loving, to actually dedicate time towards that end. God’s words can be seen as potential; if God says to do it, that means I can do it. I have the potential to expand my love, for my love to lead to great things. I can love myself enough to feel safe and secure enough to welcome the stranger. I can love God by connecting in prayer and in silence, by beholding nature. I can love others by making them a priority and staying attentive to the respect, affirmations and understanding that keeps relationships alive.
If I want to love, I must commit to love. Tu b’Av is the day to stake your claim on love. Wherever love is lacking, here is the invitation to fill your cup, to fill your neighbors cup. We are meant to love and be loved. Now go and drink your fill.