Learning to love others

The tradition teaches that we should love God and other people, rejoice on the holidays, hate evil and empathize with the poor and those in pain

A couple kisses under the ‘Ahava’ (love) sculpture at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A couple kisses under the ‘Ahava’ (love) sculpture at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
Can there be responsibility for emotions? For many it is obvious that the answer is no because emotions are not under our control.
What then are we to make of the Jewish tradition that asserts such responsibilities? The tradition teaches that we should love God and other people, rejoice on the holidays, hate evil and empathize with the poor and those in pain. Is the tradition simply out of touch with reality? Perhaps we are using too simple a model of control. It does seem impossible to merely will to have an emotion.
One cannot just decide to love, or rejoice, or hate or empathize. But there are other ways to generate emotions.
Let’s look at some everyday examples.
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I am feeling mildly depressed. What do I do? Listen to music, call a friend, take a walk in the park, read something inspiring – and I feel better.
The holiday is coming. I cannot simply wait for the hour when it begins and decide to feel joyful. But if I organize spending the holiday with those I love in song and celebration, with sumptuous banquets and time for prayer, reflection and study, then I will feel joy.
In general, we can create our emotions by controlling our circumstances. Since we are usually able to control our circumstances, we can be responsible for so doing and in that way we can be responsible for our emotions.
But what about love? What are the circumstances that are under our control that would stimulate love? Rav Dessler in his essay on Loving kindness has a detailed description of how this can be done. Rav Dessler suggests that when we give to others we come to love them.
The reason is that in giving we come to identify with them and our natural self-love then includes them. Let’s explain this step by step.
The Chumash teaches “Love your friend as yourself.”
Note that the verse does not say “as much as” – it says “as yourself.” That means: love the other as you love yourself – use your self-love to love the other.
That sounds paradoxical. Loving myself seems to be pure ego – the enemy of love for others. But then is zero self-love the ideal? So that when the verse says to love others as I love myself, I conclude: “Just as I have achieved the ideal of killing my ego so that I have zero self-love, so too I should have zero love for others!” That does not seem to be the right result.
In the verse, love of others requires prior love of self.
Self-love is not the enemy. But how can this be? It can be because it is possible to spread the self to include others and then self-love includes them as well. The spreading of the self is accomplished by giving, and the result its love.
As children we planted grass seeds in earth in a jar and tracked their growth. I watered it and recorded its progress.
As it grew I rejoiced – my grass was succeeding! Outside there could be a draught and the lawns could wither.
That did not dampen my enthusiasm for my grass. And if all the lawns grew luxuriously while the grass in my jar failed, the abundant green outside could not assuage my sadness. Because I invested in the grass in the jar, so I wanted it to succeed – my happiness was bound up with that grass – I loved it, because I invested in it.
Parents naturally identify with their children’s’ fortunes.
You are watching your child in the class play. He is hesitating – he has forgotten his lines! Why is your heart in your shoes? Don’t worry – he will not have trouble getting married because he flubbed his part in the class play at age six! But still – you identify with him – you are on stage with him and living his experience with him.
The years of giving to him have made you and him one.
Rav Yisroel Salanter was grossly insulted by a Jewish young man. Sometime later Rav Salanter inquired and found the young man had failed a test in ritual slaughter.
He invited him to live in his house while he taught him the laws until he passed the test. When the young man expressed his gratitude he also confessed that he felt deep embarrassment over his behavior. He asked Rav Salanter why he took such trouble to help him. Rav Salanter replied that when others behaved badly toward him he tried to forgive them immediately. But how could he be sure that he had truly forgiven them? By investing in them so that he wanted them to succeed, their good became his good – he then knew he had truly forgiven them.
This applies even to strangers. When we pray on someone’s behalf, we are investing in that person’s welfare.
We add our prayers and our merit to that person and that gives him a better chance. So we can even invest in strangers and come to love them as well.
In sum: if I give to another then part of me is in him.
My love for myself now includes him. This changes who I am. I am not the inhabitant of this skin-and-bones body: he and I are parts of a new compound self. And the self-love of that new compound self includes each of the erstwhile individuals. We learn to love the other by making him no longer “the other.” In families this happens naturally, between spouses and between parents and children. If we apply this method generally, we can greatly expand the field of our love.
The writer taught in the Dept. of Philosophy of The Johns Hopkins University and presently teaches at "Yeshivat Ohr Somayach" in Jerusalem.