Off the Pulpit: Tu B’Av


Tonight begins Tu B’av, the Jewish holiday that celebrates love. I am in Venice, Italy for a conference and will be chairing a discussion of love in the modern world. There are many sorts of love: familial, friendship, even love of those things we cannot possess like mountains or stars.

But romantic love is the subject of these meditations. The aptness of the conference setting is indisputable, for Venice, with its gondolas, narrow lanes, ornate eaves and arches, is a city designed for romance. Opera flourishes here as do the arts, humanity’s homage to the complexity and wonder of romantic love.

Three observations on love:

First, love is not one thing. It is a congeries of emotions. Love encompasses longing, jealousy, joy, wonder, curiosity, boredom, the arcs and ends of interpersonal experience. We love in fear and in safety, incompletely and wholly. There is bashful love and bold love. Love stories captivate us because they encompass all that is human. No other emotion is quite so manifold and various. In the same story, at the same time, there are betrayals and embraces; missed moments and ecstasies recollected in tranquility.

Love even encompasses loneliness, as expressed by modern Venetian poet Mario Stefani: “Loneliness is not being alone. Loneliness is loving in vain.”

Second. As I walked in the early morning, seeing San Marco in a rare moment without people without people (or even pigeons!), I also reflected that love much more than an emotion. Love is not simply what pirouettes through hormones and hearts. Love is an enacted emotion, sentiment that must find expression in action. The first time as a rabbi, decades ago, a woman told me that her partner hit her, but loved her, I thought right away — “No. He may feel deeply, even passionately about you, but he does not love you.”

We need to change our definition. Love is not only what you feel. It is what you do with what you feel. You can grow in knowledge or even in wisdom and act the same. Each is essentially a solitary endeavor. When people grow in their ability to love however, they grow in relation to the beloved. True love may be gripping and dramatic but it is also kind. It is, as Iris Murdoch wrote, the extremely difficult realization that another person is real. And I would add, treating them accordingly.

We need to teach ourselves and our children to think differently about the word “love.” This is a lifelong lesson — to love is to act lovingly. Not every minute, to be sure. We have limitations and each of us stumbles on our path to fulfillment. But over and over and over. Love seeks to repair the breach when we fail. It does not rest satisfied with corners unpainted and cracks that grow in the roof threatening the structure. Love seeks to do better and is no stranger to work. Love both stands side by side looking in the same direction and faces each other looking in the other’s eyes, beautifully symbolized in the statues I photographed in Piazza San Marco.

Third, and finally, love changes. It is by turns more and less ardent, grows through shallows and deep waters, again, like the pictures below. To paraphrase Heraclitus, you cannot step into the same love twice. 

Static love freezes and crumbles. When love no longer grows its tale has ended. A love that continues to grow has ever new stories to tell.

(Rabbi David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.)

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