I want to talk to you about love. Well, to be fair, actually Judaism wants to talk to you, and all of us, about love. Today is a day on the Jewish calendar called Tu B’Av, which translates to the 15th day of the month of Av. Post-Biblically speaking, it is the day of the year when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out into the vineyards wearing white and dance, and look for their love to marry. . . and in modern Jewish life, it has become a day that celebrates love and looking for love.
And because I believe that increasing love in the world requires a good deal of vulnerability, I am going to share with you a poem I wrote to my wife four years ago on Tu B’Av.
Don’t worry, it’s short and ridiculous:
To my love on Tu B’uv. Or to my lav on tu b’Av.
Either way, I want to tell you something true B’av.
I would go out into the fields every day to find you B’av
When I’m sad, you always know what to do B’Av.
You make me get shots to prevent the flu B’av.
You help me see the world anew B’Av.
I’ll take you up on every rooftop for to woo B’av.
In case anyone is asking who B’av?
The answer is simple—it is you B’av.
I love you angel, I know you love me, too B’av.
Love is sometimes silly and rhyming. Love is sometimes deep and emotional. Love is complicated. Love is true. Love is very hard. Love is very simple. And in Jewish tradition, love is an action.
And we learn that fact in this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. In what will be familiar to you, we read: v’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha, b’chol l’vavcha, uv’chol naf’shecha, u’v’chl m’odecha. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
V’ahavta means—“and you shall love” and here, we are commanded to love God. Now this is a big deal. To be commanded to feel something. Well, what if I don’t? How can Torah crawl inside my heart and make it beat a certain way? Well, that’s where the rest of this paragraph comes in. What follows is a set of instructions.
Teach your children, talk about God all the time, put mezuzahs on your doorposts. Wear a tallit. Bind God’s words as a sign upon your hand and before your eyes. This is a to-do list. Not a to-feel list. Love God how? By acting in certain ways that demonstrate your love.
This shouldn’t even come as too much of a surprise to us. When we say we love someone, we generally need to back up those words. If I say I love my parents, my kids, my partner, my friend, but I’m not willing to ever show up for them when they need me? Maybe they begin to doubt whether my words are actually true.
In three places in Torah, we are commanded to love four different entities. The first is this week: God. Second: Leviticus: ahavta l’reyecha kamocha—You shall love your neighbor as yourself. And third: also Deuteronomy, v’ahavtem et hager ki geirim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim. You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. God, neighbor, stranger, and a bonus . . . yourself.
And in each of these arenas, we will find that love is not just a feeling, but a set of actions.
Love the stranger, for you were the stranger. A reminder that for anyone today who is ill-treated because they are strangers to this land, that we have walked that path before. We know why people might leave their homeland and we know how vulnerable that makes you. And so we are to what? LOVE the stranger. With feelings? Sure. With actions. That would be in line with how our tradition understands love, yes.
This week, for the first time, I had the opportunity to love the stranger with my own freedom and physical self. As many of you know, I was among the 44 people arrested on Sunday at a Tisha B’Av protest of Jews asking Amazon to cut its ties with ICE. Amazon is supplying ICE with facial recognition technology and a mission critical web platform which makes it easy for ICE to carry out the administration’s immigration policies of caging children, separating families, and raiding immigrant work places. Our feeling-love may be appreciated, but our action-love might help change the story. To be sure, sometimes the actions that best express our love are not always going to be easy or comfortable. Wouldn’t it be easier to post on FB or for me to just tell you that the Torah says we are to love the stranger and to lament together the current plight of the asylum seeker and the immigrant? But Jewish tradition tells us that love is an action. So when we enact love, we try to do something about the stranger’s vulnerability. We try to do something about the stranger’s suffering. We try to do something about the stranger’s fear. Otherwise, our love gets trapped in our hearts.
And I want to be very clear that because I am a white appearing person and was wearing a tallit, and am clergy, I was nervous, but not at great risk. My action was, in partnership with many others, meant to raise a big noise, because this action leads to the next action and the next until all of our actions together in wave upon wave of love—help to ease the suffering of the so-called stranger in our country today. And I know that we will figure out together which actions we as a community can take to express this, our shared love for the stranger.
And we are commanded to love our neighbor, which we might read as those who are part of the Jewish people. Did you know that in Williamsburg, there were 3 attacks on Chasidic Jews within one hour this week? This is completely unacceptable. So the Progressive rabbis of Brooklyn got together and wrote a letter to our Jewish sisters and brothers in Williamsburg to let them know they are not alone. And to ask our Mayor and Borough President to gather leaders of diverse communities to talk about the undeniable rise in anti-semitism here in our city. Our neighborhoods. And I imagine that we as a community will want to find ways to act, that demonstrate our love for our neighbors as well. You’ll find that letter in the Forward, because public acts of love matter.
And wrapped up in all this is of course, the commandment to love oneself. Love your neighbor, it said? But how? As you love yourself. Here, too, it is not enough to feel it. How do you act in ways that demonstrate love for yourself, care for your own heart and body, love who you are—all of you? Because if you don’t act it, pretty soon you are liable to start calling your own bluff. And in Jewish tradition, this is not pick one from column A, skip column B kind of thing. God, our stranger, our neighbor, ourselves. To love through our actions, as best we know how.
We pray this Shabbat that the words of our Torah portion, the energy of Tu B’Av, and the notion that love asks us to bind our heart to our hands and our feet, inspires us toward action and envelopes us—all of us and each of us, in love.
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