Let there be love.
© Rabbi Noah Farkas
Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018
It was once said that Judaism is a tradition of minimum text and maximal interpretation. Take these three words from the book of Leviticus “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha” Love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev. 19:18). How clear can that be? How straight forward? How simple, how universal? “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha” Love your neighbor as yourself.
This year I am going to give two sermons on a single same verse. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” On Rosh Hashanah I’d like to explore the first two thirds of the verse, V’ahavta L’rechah, or “Love your neighbor.” On Yom Kippur, I’m going to explore the last word “Kamocha” “as yourself.”
It has been said by many in history the Judaism is not a religion that inobles love. That “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a small thing; an exception to the regular rule of the God of the Bible. After all, the Torah itself never depicts God coming to the people and saying, “I love you.” It’s not written there even once. To sum this up, in modern times, the great thinker and mystic Joseph Campbell described that -of all things- his computer: “Computers are like the God of the Old Testament, lots of rules and no mercy.”
Who by Mac and Who by Windows, Who by the spinning wheel and Who by blue screen of death, Who by the failure to back-up, and Who by forgetting their password...
In all seriousness, though, Campbell's line of thinking is typical of two millennia of polemics against Judaism. That thinking goes that the old God of Judaism is irascible, holding grudges and requiring a heavy penance for sin.
As early as the the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, one of the synoptic gospels, Jews are decried as a people who are too focused on ritual, on the length of our tzitzit, or what we put into our mouths or where we sit in shul on the holidays. (Although I am afraid they got that last one right.)
Further on in the Gospel of John, in the 13th chapter it is written, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) For John, Christianity was a new religion founded not on the preconditions of covenant and law, but on a new world order, that of love.
I’m not here today to refute the bonafides of Christianity, or to dispensate against the Gospel of Matthew or John. I leave that to them to preach their own truth, as I do have great feelings of warmth and companionship towards our Christian brothers and sisters. As someone famously said, some of my best friends are Christians.
But I am here today to set forth from our own tradition what these gospels missed, and what we often miss. That the commandment to love each other is not new, and just because God never says, “I love you” does not mean we were never worthy of God’s love, or ever felt the warmth of God’s love or know how to love because of God’s love.
And that’s why we have to get this right, in our time, today in a world that seems so distant from love. Judaism and Jews must take a stand. To make our claim about who we are and the covenant we stand for. For right now our world is full of hatred and xenophobia, greed, corruption racism and fear. And worst of all, is the expectation that love is a naive and simple emotion left to the privacy of your house and bedroom and not to be brought into the House or the boardroom.
In a world that is dark and bleak and thinks too little of itself, we have to get this right. We have to show what we mean by Jewish love which has existed and sustained us long before the gospel, and certainly long before law was stripped of love by the modern philosophers and political thinkers. We have to speak to the idea of commanded love, or I would say covenantal love and why that is Jewish love.
And why the commandment “Love your Neighbor” is perhaps the most important one for us to hear today.
To do that, to share our covenantal understanding of love, I think it best to tell you the story about the rabbi who loved God and loved the world more than any other in history of our people. Who lived in a world not unlike our own.
Born to humble origins, Akiva ben Yosef became a shepard and married a woman named Rachel. His life was simple tending the flocks tending his own family. Until he turned 40 years old and had a midlife crisis that changed the world forever.
Many men buy a sports car, or get season tickets, or flirt with the wrong sort of person. Akiva did something far more radical for a shepherd, he studied Torah.
He devoured text after text, and soon became one of the greatest rabbis of not just of his time, but of anytime. He reared thousands upon thousands of students. He lead the effort to canonize the Tanakh, our Bible. His writing were so cherished that his pupil Rabbi Meir kept them safe and expounded upon them. Rabbi Meir passed these precious writings to his student, a man named Judah, who was said to have been born on the day of Akiva’s death, who became Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishnah, essentially Rabbi Akiva’s grand-student.
It was Akiva’s notions of Jewish law, it was Rabbi Akiva’s notion of our halakhah, it was Rabbi Akiva’s methodology for studying and expounding on the Torah that became the outline for all of Jewish law, constructing the very worldview that makes us Jews one generation to the next for thousands of years all the way up to today.
Such was Rabbi Akiva’s power that it is said that he entered the mystical and holy orchard of Torah study he came back sane and strong where his companions went mad, sick and even died. Such was Akiva’s wisdom that even Moses, looking down from heaven, was speechless at Akiva’s ability to expound upon the Torah. Such was his his exuberance for love that he ended up giving his life for love.
The world in which Rabbi Akiva lived was brutal. A people conquered, a land vanquished, Akiva saw it all. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Temple, the Jews stood watching over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. Rabbi Akiva was chosen to be a regional emissary to Rome and spent two years in Italy. Akiva saw first-hand how Rome was powerful and oppressive.
The Roman Caesars knew of love too. Roman love is narcissistic. They loved power, of money, of prestige and of violence. Everything is about power to the Roman mind. Their greatest teacher, Cicero, a hundred years before Rabbi Akiva, in his first speech before the Roman Senate believed that loyalty to the state was more important than any one’s convictions.
Those that were dissidents, who thought for themselves, who didn’t agree with the Senate’s agenda, felt the power and brutality of the Roman legion. Any expression other than Roman was treasonous, it is incumbent upon the state to “cull the dregs of the republic”, by that he means those who resist the oppression of Roman rule. (Cicero, The First Oration Against Catiline).
The two years that Rabbi Akiva was in Rome, the Caesar was a particularly bad man by the name of Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus; who felt that only he had the right idea about Roman power. Domitian curtailed the power of the Senate by creating a cult of personality around his rule, stripped Roman citizens of their citizenship, and sought to undo the republic and refashion it into an empire. Domitian took the surname Augustus in order to link his rule to the emperors of old, in an effort to restore Rome’s greatness to that of the Empire under Augustus Caesar. (Jones, Brian W. (1992). The Emperor Domitian. London: Routledge)
It is into this world that Rabbi Akiva was born. It is into this world that he grew and learned Torah. It is into this world that Rabbi Akiva preached. A world of oppression and suppression. A world of violence and xenophobia - a world of hate. A world where the most powerful nation on earth teetered on the edge of despotism, fascism, risking its own democratic origin all in the name of regaining greatness.
It is into this world where ideas of like friendship and love were snuffed out like embers. A world that that found favor in the eyes Machiavelli, and Nietzsche and Mussolini and Hitler, and all those who believe that the rule of law comes through fear and scheming and physical power.
Rome ruled a world that says if you are not in the “in” group, you are nothing but dregs, to be thrown out like garbage, treated like animals, sent to the circus or the colosseum to fight of for life to be crucified, tortured and humiliated.
A world where your citizenship can be stripped, your rights taken away and your life decimated because you speak out against the republic. This is the world into which Rabbi Akiva was born, a world into which he preached, and the world that eventually took his life.
And yet, in this void and vastness and darkness, Akiva chose to protest, he chose to not be silent. Akiva chose to study and teach Torah in the school house, in the synagogue, in the street, and in the colosseum.
What was Rabbi Akiva’s revolutionary thinking that changed the world?
It is love.
It is love.
He looked into the darkness of the world that the Torah’s greatest teaching is about love. The tradition teaches that when debating what the most important verse of the Torah was, of all the 5,888 versus Akiva chose our little verse, our three little words: “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself” Klal Gadol is the greatest principle of the Torah. (Sifra Kedoshim 2:5)
Love your neighbor as yourself. Our three words. “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha.” This is the greatest principle of the Torah.
In writings attributed to his school of thinking the tradition says:
That love even in the toughest and roughest of times, gives you hope for a better future. (BT Horayot 10b).
Love is stronger than oppression. (BT Gittin 36b)
When we argue with each other, we can be fierce, and we are fierce, we are Jews after all, we need to engage and not disengage from each other and from the world because our banner is a banner of love. (BT Shabbat 63a)
Love is stronger than political forces, because it endures forever. (Maggid Mishneh, “Laws Concerning Neighbors” 14:8)
Against the blackness, the oppression, the injustice, the fear, the uncertainty, the danger Rabbi Akiva took the risk and said the central theme of the Torah and therefore the central theme of all being - is love.
Love is challenge.
Love is resistance.
Love is protest.
Rabbi Akiva knew the power of love and how it can give you the strength to endure even the bleakest of hours. It is why he sought to find love in every moment and in every place. Love - not fear, not ritual, not obligation, is at the center of our covenant with God.
At first glance it might be hard to see that directly in our Torah, but I’ll give you an example of How Rabbi Akiva saw it.
When it came to adding the Song of Songs to the Tanakh, a small book filled with love poetry, it was Rabbi Akiva who was the biggest advocate.
Do not, Rabbi Akvia said, underestimate the value of the poetry, for it is the song of love between God and the Jewish people. It is with this small candle, this little love song, say the rabbis that the treasure of Torah can truly be understood. (Songs Zuta 1:1). And how right they were.
Using Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation, the entire story of the Torah comes alive through the lenses of the Song of Songs. Every moment renewed, revealed again as a love song between Israel and God.
The moment at Sinai being the greatest. Those who lambast Judaism as religion based on God’s heartless power and commandedness look to the smoking mountain with its thunder and lightning and and the trembling mass of humanity standing under the mount - as the moment God took love away from the people and replaced it with fear. According to some scholars God freed us from one tyrant and put us to bondage under the yoke of another.
But the Song of Songs says:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart; like the seal upon your hand. For love is fierce as death, passion mighty as Sheol; Its’ darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame...” (Song of Songs 8:6)
Rabbi Akvia’s student Rabbi Meir saw not a moment of fear or power, but a moment of love. The smoke of the mountain evaporates into a chuppah, the fire is not heat of wrathful anger but the darts of love. The covenant carved into the tablets was a seal not in stone but that upon the heart and hand.
According to the Akivan view The Torah itself came down the mountain and went before each individual and said, “Here is what I am, here are my commandments, will you have me?” And each Israelite says, “Yes! Yes!” Then as the Song of Songs says, “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth.” (Songs 1:2) And the Israelites on that day agree to be covenanted to God and the Torah, sealed upon the heart and upon the hand. (Songs Rabba 8:2-7)
We must find love, everywhere, at every moment. For our covenant, our moment with God, the moment of revelation, the moment of bonding of truth to the world is a moment of love.
Unlike the Caesar, who used Roman law to place his heel upon the necks vulnerable, Rabbi Akiva, and for us his descendants, the covenant with God, the law itself is a covenant of Love. Our God does not place the heel, our God outstretches the arm, to deliver the enslaved, to raise up the downtrodden, to heal, to partner, to upend the earth in love.
The God of Judaism is a God of Love, and the Torah is our ketubah.
Which means the greatest love letter ever written opens with these words, “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamyim v’et ha’aretz. V’haarete’z hayta tohu vavo’hu. V’ruach Elohim merekhefet al pneli ha tahom..” In the Beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth and it was chaos, a void and dark, and God looked into the darkness and the chaos and void and said. “Va’hei or” let there be light.” (Gen. 1:1).
It’s the most remarkable thing ever written, it’s the most remarkable choice ever made, for out of the vastness of the void God drew the light and chose to create a space for us. To love us and to be loved by us. To invite us under the chuppah.
Out of meaninglessness God chose meaning.
Out of darkness God chose light.
Out of nothingness God chose to make something.
That is Jewish love, covenantal love.
The Torah is a love letter to the world against the darkness and uncertainty of the meaningless of life. Against the stars of the universe, the wheel houses of heaven, out of pull of maw of injustice God blew life into the nostrils of humanity and said, “You matter.”
No matter how small you feel, you matter.
No how insignificant your life seems, you matter.
No how big your troubles, or worthless you might feel, you matter.
In other words, “I love you.”
I love you. What more do we need?
God never says, “I love you.” in the Torah, but every breath is a wonder; every moment is graceful. Existence itself -life itself- is an act of love.
This was Rabbi Akiva’s greatest achievement, shaping the Jewish worldview forever.
Our liturgy reflects Rabbi Akiva’s revolution.
It is replete with God’s love. Here is just one love song we sing everyday. Ahavat Olam Beit Israel Amcha ahata Torah u’mitzvot Chukim Umishpatim Otanu Limadita. - An unending cosmic love letter is given to each of us, inscribed in the Torah, the commandments, its laws and precepts. The covenant is a covenant love, the mitzvot are verses of love song. Ki Hem Chayeinue V’orech Yameniu, they are our life and give us life, and set out the path of our days.
Covenantal love is not romantic love, Eros.
Covenantal love is not friendship, or Philia.
Covenantal love is grace, it is not agape.
There is no Greek word for Covenantal love because it does not come from Athens or Golgotha. The Torah comes from Zion and Jerusalem.
Covenantal love is called in Hebrew, Chesed. Chesed is love layden with responsibility, and clad in deed. Chesed is the type of of love binds kindness and caring to our sense of mutuality, and our common fate. Chesed takes into account our obligations to each other’s flourishing and not just our emotional dispositions. Chesed is the kind of love that comes as a seal, a covenant.
As it says in Songs, “Set me as a seal upon your heart; like the seal upon your hand.”
There must be a covenant in order to have love. There must be the rule of law, but those laws, because they are given in love, must be flexible enough to caress the nape of human suffering.
That is why sin matters.
That is why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur matter.
You must be held morally accountable for your sins.
Sins against others, sins against yourself and sins against God.
We sing on these Holidays Adonai Adoni El Rachum Erec Apa’im Rav Chesed V’Emet, Noseh Chesed Lelpahim, Noseh Avon Va’fesha, V’nakeh... (Ex. 34:6-7)
Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum Ve’chanun… Our God, the LORD is a God of compassion and love.
God holds you accountable, and remembers sin, according to the Torah. That is part of the covenant, but in doing so, God always begins in love.
There is no prophet to intercede for you, there is no priest to make expiation. We must all be held accountable and save ourselves on these holy days, and that redemption itself is possible, because because we know that God is a God of love.
How do we return God’s love? Our Torah has the answer.
V’havta et Adonai Elohecha B’chol Levavcah, Bechol Nafshecha U’bchol Meodecha. “Love God with all your might, all your heart, and all your soul... Bind these words as a frontlet between your eyes and a sign upon your hand.” (Deut. 6:6-8) Or in other words as it says in Songs of Songs, “Set me as a seal upon your heart; like the seal upon your hand.”
Loving God back is a full body experience.
God gave us love through the word and we return it through the deed through mitzvot. To love God is to act on God’s behalf.
The Hasidic tradition teaches that "Love your neighbor as yourself" the word kamocha, carries the numerical value of eighty-six, the same numerical value as the word Elohim. To love your neighbor is to Love God.
This is not an academic discussion. The repercussions are real, it is a matter of life and death. It is a matter of community and nationhood, of ethics and our mutual responsibility for each other.
To love God is to love the covenant.
To love God is to love your neighbor.
To love God is to love the world.
It only says twice to Love God in the Torah, but it says 36 times to Love the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
You cannot Love God without loving the world.
You cannot Love God who loves the orphan, the widow and the stranger without loving the widow, the orphan, the stranger, for each of them is your neighbor.
You cannot love God and support policies that make orphans.
You cannot love God and support policies that kill innocents and make widows and widowers.
You cannot love God and cast out the stranger, the poor, the downtrodden.
The covenant with God is that of love with law is at its center.
Jewish Justice is Jewish Love. And Jewish Love is Jewish Justice.
Justice is Love. Love is Justice.
Just as God chose to to pull the light out of the darkness, Rabbi Akiva chose love to resist the very oppressive dark world that surrounded him.
Love is how Rabbi Akiva resisted oppression.
Love is how we resist oppression.
Love is how we resist hate.
Love is how we say against the void, “v’yahei or. Let there be light.”
Let there be love.
When you see an act of hate, act with love.
Let there be love.
When you see an act of injustice, act with love.
Let there be love.
When you see an act of oppression, act with love.
Let there be love.
We cannot fight for justice by returning anger for anger and hate for hate. For that just means that hate wins. Both their anger and their hate and our anger and our hate. As Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot be driven away by darkness, only light can do that.” (MLK, Strength To Love, 1977, p.47)
You do not hate the oppressor, but love the oppressed.
You do not hate the tyrant, but love the persecuted.
You do not hate the abuser but love the abused.
Which is why we return to our story. Domitian Caesar was assassinated by his court. He was replaced by a man named Trajan who abdicated the throne and then replaced by Hadrian, who was the worst of them all. Hadrian outlawed everything that was not indigenously Roman, including the teaching of Torah. Rabbi Akiva was arrested and brought the before Romans. He was tried and convicted for teaching Torah, his flesh was combed away from his bones. He was asked by his students of his torments if he felt his sufferings were good for him, if the were justified.
He said they were sufferings of love, issure shel ahava. Not because torture is good, or that the righteous can handle punishment, or that he needs to be a symbol to others, but because the Romans could not break his spirit. Even in pain at the end of his life, he still looked upon the world and saw love. Because as it says in songs, “Love is as fierce as death.”
In his very last moments he sang out the Shema and the V’ahavta. His students, weeping, asked why he was so joyus. He answered, “my students, I now know what it means to love the LORD God with all my might, all heart and all my soul. Even until the moment of death.” (Ber.61b)
Love is resistance.
We do not have to martyr ourselves like Rabbi Akiva. But our lives depend on our choices in this moment.
You cannot love God, if you do not love justice.
You cannot love God without loving the world.
You cannot love God without loving your neighbor.
This is Jewish love, commanded love, covenantal love.
This is what the gospels miss. This is what we often miss ourselves. The command is not new. It has always been there, from the very beginning. The greatest principle of the Torah, are our three words, “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We have to our very real problems, our environmental problems, our political problems, our racial and economic problems, but we must build a world of love. Out of the darkness, out of the chaos, out of the void, like God, like Rabbi Akiva, we must all say, “Let there be love.”