Thursday, October 20, 2005


Four Letters Often Used but Seldom Understood

On the subject of justice, which in the Hebraic mindset at least does not only refer to the results of a due process of law but also to wealth redistribution, perhaps rendering unto Caesar what may be Caesar's but certainly rendering to God what is God's, Rev. RMJ quotes Matthew 22:36-40 on the subject of love. My first reaction was to compare this story with the story of (Shammai) Hillel and the prospective convert. But a friend of mine asked me a question and this got me to thinking:

Why does one person love another?

This is a difficult question I do not fully know how to answer. But it comes up quite often: why do my parents love me? What have I done to deserve their love? Why does my girlfriend love me? What does she even mean when she says she loves me? Is she infatuated with my physical beauty (well, maybe not -- I'm not that attractive: I'm a Niebelung, remember? ;) )? Does she love all of me or just some parts?

One way in which this question arises is the same way in which people, who are raised in even rather optimal environments, still find it difficult to honor their parents: sometimes, just as it is hard to accept that one's parents did a decent job as one came out well enough, it is also hard to accept that one can be loved.

Currently, it is within the festival of Succos (or Succot or Succoth, however you prefer): the harvest festival. The order of the Jewish calendar is such that within the same lunar month (is "lunar month" repetative or redundant? or part of that old legal law tradition of having an Anglo-Saxon and Norman-Latinate word pushed together?), we have the New Year, the Day of Atonement and then the Harvest Festival. Why celebrate the New Year, then the Day of Atonement and then the Harvest? Isn't that backwards?

Well, the Harvest Festival, as the Rabbi at my girlfriend's shul pointed out in a sermon I missed, is a season of joy in which we are commanded to be joyful -- which is a pretty unusual command. How can one force oneself to be joyful? What if one is depressed? This is the same question as how one can accept love: whether it is God's love or the love of a fellow human. In order to accept love -- in order to know why one person can love you -- you must first renew yourself. You must first accept that you will be starting your life anew (the New Year), then you must atone for your errors (the Day of Atonement) and then you can reap the joy of the Harvest. As the Psalm (126?) chanted after enjoying a festive meal says: you sow in tears but reap in joy.

So what does this have to do with justice? Well, to not be able to accept love is to feel that it is unjust that you are loved. But when you love your neighbor as yourself, you must accept love, your own love for yourself, in order to love your neighbor. Justice is rooted not just in the legal order but in accepting that order -- as we read on Rosh Hashana, God accepted Ishmael, a troubled kid from a troubled family who was left to die, where he was.

To look at this situation conversely, we learn even more. Many commandments are associated with the Harvest: not gleaning, leaving the corners of your fields for the poor, etc. All of these commandments are associated with justice, in the Hebraic sense of the word, as is the fast of Yom Kippur ("is this not the fast I seek?" -- Isaiah). The sacrifice of the fast is not you giving up your food, but realizing that it is ultimately God's food that is sustaining you. There is no bread without Torah but no Torah without bread. A korban, a sacrifice, does not mean you should feel you are giving up something, but that you are giving back something. By showing your love, by being unselfish, you prepare yourself to be loved. If a fear of being loved is a fear that you are unjust and in a just world you do not deserve love, then the way to accept love is to be just and loving. When you are just and loving, even if you may have sinned, God will and Humankind ought to accept you where you are: after all, nobody is perfect nor would we want anybody to be perfect.

Judaism, no less than Christianity, realizes the saving power of God's grace. But to us, God's gracious love is something that may be difficult to accept. Just as we wonder why our friends love us, our partners love us, etc., we wonder how God can love us. But God has, in divine grace, given us a path to accept love. By walking in the ways of justice and mercy, we can accept God's love. The ways may not always seem so pleasant, one may cry much as one plants, but God willing, we can harvest in joy.

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