What is Love? by Rabbi Zamir Cohen

“If you want to cling to your friend’s love, find ways to help him[1]

The teachings of our sages are already known. When one enters a wedding hall, and the waiter asks him what he prefers to eat, and he replies: “I love fish” he is wrong. After all, we do not kill and fry those we love. Instead he can say: I love eating fish. Meaning, you actually love yourself but you’re using the fish to fulfill your heart’s desires. The words, ‘I love fish’ really mean, I love raising them and taking care of them. The same goes for any true love between two people. It is based upon giving and not upon the hope to receive. This is the love between parents and their children as well as any other pure love.

And in truth, the definition of love is: A pure desire by the one who loves, that his beloved will experience happiness. When this pure desire is fulfilled, the one who loves senses a true satisfaction – one that is much stronger than the satisfaction received by his beloved. And the more effort he exerts for his beloved, the more pleasure he receives in return.

Moreover, the statement of our sages at the beginning of this chapter comes to teach us that contrary to the notion that ‘we love therefore we give’, solid love is only achieved through giving  (in other words, we give therefore we love).

The expression: ‘To cling to your friend’s love’, means, to love your friend in a deeply-rooted wayone that is stable and secure. If a person extends his love only when he feels it, his love will be temporary and conditional; Without the condition, there is no love. On the other hand, when a person adopts a child when he is young for example, and exerts much effort in raising him, his love and connection to him would be deeper than if he had adopted him as a teenager when the care taking effort would have been briefer. The same is true for a person who cultivates a plant, takes care of a baby pet, builds his own house or designs a creative piece of artwork – he clings to these endeavors with love, as he feels that a part of him is contained inside them. And the more he invests in them, the more he feels that he’s a part of them, so he begins to love them as he loves himself.[2]

Our sages teach us that if you wish to cling to your friend with love, your love for him must be firm and solid. It must be based upon deep considerations of what he truly needs and how you can potentially provide those needs for him. And if this is so among friends, how much more so among the two halves that make up a whole known as, husband and wife. Once they’ve agreed to marry, they must then cling to each other with love by giving to one another in a consistent and powerful way. This mutual giving process which transforms the giver to a receiver, turns the two of them into one organism – one single unit. Therefore, the numerical value for ahava (love) is 13 and so is the value for the word echad (one), as the whole individual, according to the divine plan, is composed of two heads, four hands, and four legs.

“And they shall become one flesh…”

Anyone who wishes to delve deeper into this concept will discover something amazing. Oxygen burns fast while hydrogen burns even faster. But amazingly, when these two flammable elements are combined into one compound, they turn into water that extinguishes fire! According to his nature, man belongs to the fire element (while the inanimate belongs to earth, plants to water, and animals to wind as noted in Etz Chaim[3].)

This is why the word esh (fire) is found in both ish (man) and isha (woman). And since the nature of fire is to consume, we would think that a man and a woman living under one roof would be gradually consumed by the fire of their conflicts until they are fully destroyed. However, when the Divine Presence rests between them, and they provide for each other and live by the Will of G-d, a true love develops between them that transforms them into one entity. At this point they are no longer esh (fire) but rather a compound called adam (man) (which on one hand expresses the peace and tranquility of the adama, the earth element, and on the other hand it expresses the verse in Yeshayahu:[4] Edame L’elyon, I will liken myself to the Most High”. This ‘likening’ expresses the power of choice that every person has that allows him, by means of his behavior patterns and spiritual level, to reach extreme heights, as a fire that escalates and climbs upwards) this is manifested by the fact that the Divine Presence rests between them when the letter “Yod” from the name of G-d (spelled Yod, Hey) was given to the man – forming the word Ish and the letter “Hey” from G-d’s Name was given to the woman – forming the word Isha. And so are the letters of G-d’s Name; Yod and Hey which are inseparable in their essence and link the man and the woman into one entity as it says: “And He called their names Adam (man)” – as G-d wants them to live well.

This is why the word adam (man) begins with the spiritual letter aleph[5], as does the word ahav which is the root of the word ahava (love). Dam (blood) represents the substance provided by the mother and father (av (father) + em (mother) = 44 and the numerological value of dam is also 44) while the aleph – the spiritual soul comes before the word dam, as it controls the physical and infuses life into it. The word ahav is spelled – aleph plus hav. Hav means ‘give’. It is the power of taking that exists in this world, while the number 7 (which numerically is hey (5) + bet (2) = 7 spelling out the word hav) symbolizes the physical and spiritual aspects that it contains. The aleph, which is the spiritual soul is supposed to control this tendency in the world of nature – it is supposed to counteract the act of taking by means of giving. This is love. It transforms these two separate entities – the fire (esh) with the fire (esh) that take and consume, into one person made up of a man and a woman unified by the Name of G-d and converged into a happy, fire-resistant unit. Therefore, ahava (love) and echad (one) both equal 13 – together totaling 26 – the same numerical value as the Name of G-d – Havaya.

The lack of awareness of this great principle, which is prevalent in our generation (as most people maintain the opposite viewpoint) is the main reason for many failed marriages these days. They believe that the meaning of love is to receive from the one who loves you. This effectively means that if the purpose of love is to receive, then when a person ceases to receive, he ceases to love. And the results are devastating: pain, sorrow, terrible troubles, and bitter tears that turn into the daily troubles of many men, women and children. We must become aware of this. There are two types of feelings. Some come about in a sudden way and merely come to express the desire to connect. These are mistakenly referred to as – ‘love’. Then there are pure feelings of true love in which the one who loves simply seeks the pleasure of his beloved. The first one is a spark that will become extinguished in the same way it was ignited; as soon as the substance that kindled it dissipates. The second one on the other hand, is a wonderful emotional connection based on giving. This is the solid, contagious kind of love seen between parent and child, between a gardner and his plants, between a painter and his painting, and between a creator and his creation. And when each of the partners is aware of the correct definition of love, each one builds his love by giving to his partner, without always trying to figure out what it is that he is gaining for himself. In this way, they may both attain unconditional giving and ultimately, a truly happy marriage. This approach will indirectly lead them to becoming receivers – though that should never be their motive.

An unmarried person must base his or her natural aspiration to get married upon this principle. He should want to reach perfection by aspiring to give to his other half who is not yet known to him so they can eventually converge into one being. This was the secret behind the profound outlook of Reb Aryeh Levin zt”l – that when he and his wife were asked by the doctor which one of them is the patient, the Rabbi innocently answered: “My wife’s foot hurts us”. In other words, we are one body, and her pain is my pain. This outlook can only be reached by means of constant giving until the feeling that ‘she = me is achieved. I provide for her consistently the same way I would for myself, thus, her pain is my pain and her happiness is my happiness.

His may lead us to appreciate the great matchmaking method seen in Torah observant communities. How terrible would it be for a couple to get married on the basis of lust determined by the color of the eyes, the texture of the hair, or the physical build. This type of external blindness can easily make the person overlook basic qualities extremely necessary for a successful marriage such as: good-heartedness, the ability to control one’s anger, patience and tolerance, fear of G-d, a correct approach to parenting, being a good role model etc. Unfortunately, this type of blindness can lead the person ‘in love’ to ignore certain deficiencies of the one he’s in love with. He may even become angry at the objective party who’s trying to point these deficiencies out claiming that he’s trying to break them apart. 

The root of this misguided form of dating is based upon the misconception that the main aspect of marriage was intended to meet a person’s physical desires. And when this is the approach, the person stumbles, even if he is wise, like a ripened fruit falling into a terrible trap that can potentially destroy his happiness in life.

Contrary to this, the Torah-based dating process is based on a thorough check prior to the first date. This ‘background check’, carried out by family and friends of the marriage candidates, takes place without the distractions of physical urges or desires. It is rather a practical evaluation of the person’s character and his/her traits and qualities. The physical appearance is also taken into account in the research process, however, it is only a part of the system, as its level of priority depends on the aspirations and expectations of the one being matched. Only after the general report is considered, and the candidate is given the relevant details, the two of them meet for a conversation without any form of contact, not even a hand shake.

It is important to remember that besides for the serious halachic prohibition of having physical contact prior to the wedding, no matter how insignificant the contact may be, it still has a strong psychological effect on the person. It causes an illusory closeness that has no bearing on reality. On the other hand, a productive conversation in a pleasant atmosphere allows each side to assess the style of speech, way of life, character and appearance of his or her date. They both take interest in the aspects that are of interest to them and try to see if they are compatible. They also try to determine how serious their potential partner is about the relationship and all it entails (based on spiritual outlook, traits and qualities, pleasantness during conversation, whether he is a candidate for a long-lasting emotional connection, and whether he/she is suited to be the mother/father of my children etc.). If both parties are interested in meeting again, they would proceed with the proper rules of modesty until they agree to build ‘a faithful home among the nation of Israel’.

Dating that is based upon sound judgment versus impulsive urges, is the best guarantee for a quality family life.

Notes and Sources

[1] Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta chapter 2

[2] Refer to the book by Rav Dessler, Strive for Truth, part 1 (p.35 in the original hebrew text)

[3] Etz Chaim Shaar Kitzur ABIYA p.117

[4] Yeshayahu 14:14

[5] For more on the hebrew letters and on the letter Aleph in particular refer to the book, Hatzofen

Adapted from “The Keys to Life” by Rabbi Zamir Cohen


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