Love is a Four Letter Word
In this week’s piece I reflect on love, its meaning and how to sustain it. It was inspired by Judaism’s little day of love on Wednesday, known as Tu Be Av or the 15th Day of Av; which is traditionally associated with romance and matchmaking. It’s been called Judaism’s Valentine’s Day, although it has nothing to do with St Valentine! This week’s Torah reading is Ekev Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 which, among other things, reminds us of God’s love for us.
LOVE is a four letter word in Hebrew too. It’s known as אהבה, ahavah, and starts with an aleph, first letter of the alphabet; the beginning of it all. We are here on this little planet because of love: God, according to the Kabbalists, had no choice but to share His immense and overflowing love.
Love unshared is love unrealised. The root of Ahavah is “Hav”, to give. And God doesn’t stop giving and loving despite our waywardness. We too shouldn’t stop loving because the other fails or disappoints us. Inconstant and inconsistent love can still be love.
When I was about eighteen, I came across psychoanalyst Eric Fromm’s enchanting little classic, The Art of Loving. In it he presented an incisive analysis of the different kinds of love from motherly love to brotherly love, from erotic love to love of God. What really caught my attention, however, was Fromm’s definition of love as an expression of giving: “In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power… I experience myself as overflowing… alive hence as joyous. ”Giving, Fromm says, is more joyous than receiving because giving is the expression of one’s aliveness, vitality and humanity. His sentiments echo the Torah sensibility that in the act of giving we discover our own potency. In the romantic tradition of love, we give to the one we love. But in the spiritual tradition of love, we love the one to whom we give; the more we give, the more we love.
If we really love, we don’t just give up on our partners or our kids, on our friends and our communities.
Marriages are about staying the course – they may be made in heaven, but they don’t stay in heaven. They are bruised and tested by our unruly unpredictable earth, as well as our impetuous and mercurial ways.
Love in the best of relationships does sometimes go underground. Writer, David Brooks, writes beautifully about how we preserve love in a relationship: ”My favourite definition of commitment is falling in love with something and then building structure of behaviour around it for the moment when love falters”. You can’t stay on a romantic plane of love for too long, you have to work on it even through the boring and banal times. You don’t want to just fall in love, you want to stay in love! As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it – we wed in poetry, but we stay married in prose. What keeps couples together are the daily acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and friendship. What sustains relationships are the regular acts of patience, sorrowfulness and forgiveness.
Love isn’t only a feeling but a process, the unfolding of a heavenly-hued cloth on the rough uneven ground of our lives.
Ahavah starts with aleph but also has a beit ( second letter) in it and two heys, the fifth letter. The beit reminds us of continuity, it’s very shape is about looking forward ב – and it has a solid base. The hey, which is the fifth letter and has the numerical value of five, reminds us of the five digits which make a hand. There are two heys for to stay in love is to walk hand-in-hand resolutely on life’s unravelling road.