What is love? The word is used in so many ways, and it is so fundamental to Judaism, yet its meaning is so elusive that it is often difficult to know what it actually means to say that you love someone.
Perhaps the root of the difficulty lies in our having forgotten the essence of who we are as human beings. In our modern, technological world, many of us have lost touch with the Jewish understanding that each and every one of us is a holy soul. In Genesis 2:7 we read: “And God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.” The Hebrew is unambiguous: When the dust of the earth is transformed into a breathing human being, it becomes a nefesh chaya, a living soul. When we see ourselves, and others, as living souls rather than as personalities or egos, it becomes obvious what love is.
Unfortunately, modern psychology and science have had little use for the soul. As behavioral psychologist John B. Watson explains, although it “has been present in human psychology from earliest antiquity, no one has ever touched the soul, or has seen one in a test tube, or has in any way come into a relationship with it as he has with the other objects of his daily experience.”
And yet this ancient concept, which trades in wisdom, not knowledge, can help us deepen our understanding and experience of love. We can learn from 16th-century Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas’ treatise on love, “Shaar ha’Ahava”—“The Gate of Love,” which appears in his multivolume work titled Reishit Chochmah — The Beginning of Wisdom:
You love your friend through your nefesh-soul, for the nefesh wants to love. Even though your body’s material substance separates you from your friend, the nefesh-soul of both of you is a spiritual entity and the tendency of the spirit is to make you cleave to your friend with unbroken unity.
When your nefesh-soul becomes aroused to love a friend, your friend’s nefesh-soul will be equally aroused to love you in return until both of your souls are bound to form one single entity….The power of the love between two people causes their nefesh-souls to become bound together.
The term nefesh shows up more than 700 times in the bible. It names the dimension of the inner life that houses and is composed of our character traits. It is more than a storeroom of qualities, however. In some contexts, the word nefesh is used to designate a whole person. Death is also the extermination of the nefesh; in the Book of Jonah (2:6), the prophet describes his descent into the sea as being “ad nefesh,” meaning, “to the door of death.”
The nefesh is one of the three primary dimensions of the human soul, along with ruach, the animating spirit within us, and neshama, the radiant spiritual essence, at which level we can be said to be made in the image and likeness of God (as the Book of Proverbs 20:27 says, “Ner HaShem, nishmat adam —the neshama-soul of a person is the candle of God”). Matters of love implicate the nefesh-soul because it has the capacity to bond. Love occurs when my nefesh-soul and your nefesh-soul knit together. This idea is evident in the biblical description of David’s love for Jonathan: “As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the nefesh-soul of Jonathan was knit to the nefesh-soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:1).
It may be that the strongest “proof” that love is the bonding of nefesh-souls comes from what we experience when our love has been abandoned or betrayed. The unbearable pain we experience is the breaking apart of the nefesh-souls that had been woven together. That pain is not just “as if” we had been ripped apart; on the spiritual level, the severance is as real as the pain we feel.
What, then, can each of us do to foster nefesh-soul love? How can we become more loving, and receive more love in return?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1891–1953), a master of Mussar (a Jewish spiritual practice to foster growth in character and actions), pointed to the close correlation between love and acts of generosity and asked, “Do we give to the people we love, or do we love the people to whom we give?” His answer: “We usually think it is love which causes giving, because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the person he loves. But there is another side to the argument….A person comes to love the one to whom he gives”
(Strive for Truth!). To foster love, he taught, be generous: extend what you have in your hands and in your heart toward other human beings. Love will grow along the lines of your giving. “That which a person gives to another is never lost. It is an extension of his own being.”
This wisdom applies in all close relationships. The more generous we are, the more we will cultivate love. If our inclination is to slip into being a taker, rather than a giver, in a relationship, we are wise to struggle against this tendency. When we commit ourselves to renew love, when we find more and more ways to give to the people with whom we want to experience love, we are more likely to receive love. Generosity needs to be our effort and practice.
These principles extend to our larger circle of acquaintances and even to strangers. As Rav Dessler teaches, “If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to whom he gives, he would realize that the only reason the other person seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him; he has not taken the trouble to show him friendly concern. If I give to someone, I feel close to him; I have a share in his being. It follows that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone I come into contact with, I would soon feel that they are all my relatives, all my loved ones. I now have a share in them all; my being has extended into all of them.”
Rav Dessler calls for a heart large enough to accommodate fulfillment of the oft-repeated biblical injunction to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The key to rising above self-interest is to become more aware of the intention behind our giving. A gift given with the hope or attempt to elicit love is not generosity, but a transaction. When we share or relinquish something dear to us with no thought of recompense, love blooms. It is not the thing that is given, but the selflessness in the giving that triggers the love.
The linguistic root of ahava, the Hebrew word for love, literally means “to offer” or “to give.” The act of giving bridges the gap between souls and initiates the process of soul-merger that is the very definition of love. As we develop generosity free of self-interest, love will flow as surely as the rays of the sun carry warmth to our bones.
Alan Morinis is the founding director of The Mussar Institute and author of the books
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and
Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, as well as other
RJ magazine articles.