Love in the Beginning

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Sam Englender

It’s been almost three months since Simchat Torah, and since then, a lot has happened. The world has been created, filled, flooded, and then filled again. We’ve also seen our own family struggle and grow. Each generation with its own challenges, our nth-times-over great grandparents have fought and grown and loved.

And it is this love that I want to focus on, for as we will see, there is something very strange afoot.

Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs loved often and with great intensity. God is usually very sparing in God’s description of internal emotions in the Torah, yet in Sefer Bereishit we see that the root אהב (love) is used 15 times. And when we explore these verses, it becomes clear that this “Bereishit Love” is a very specific type of love: Possessive Love.

In Possessive Love the lover (the one who loves) doesn’t take in account the “lovee’s” (the object of the love) wishes and desires. This is why in all of Bereshit we never are told of the lovee’s reaction to love. Rather the Torah tells us only of the lover’s desires and emotions. We are told that Jacob loves Rachel, not that Jacob and Rachel love each other. The lovee is in effect negated. Let’s take a look at an example:

Bereishit 34

 וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי–נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ

 וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ, בְּדִינָה בַּת-יַעֲקֹב; וַיֶּאֱהַב, אֶת-הַנַּעֲרָ, וַיְדַבֵּר, עַל-לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ

2 And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and raped her.

3 And his soul cleaved unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the maiden, and he appealed to the maiden’s emotions.

Dina’s rape proves that Shechem doesn’t have an iota of concern for Dina. And yet the Torah tells us that he loves Dina! How could this be? It is because Shechem loves Dina with Bereishit Love, a possessive love that completely disregards the desires of the object of their affections.

Moreover, when you love someone with a possessive love, you also think about them constantly. You need their constant presence (think about the stereotypical over-possessive boyfriend, or the pageant mom). The lovee becomes absorbed into the lover’s identity. Perhaps the story of Dina and Shechem is the most violent and disturbing example of this possessive love. However, this model holds true throughout Bereishit. Here’s another example from when Yosef’s brothers are recalling (a yet unrevealed) Yosef’s query about their family in Egypt:

Bereishit 46

 וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, יֶשׁ-לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן, וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן; וְאָחִיו מֵת, וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ

.כא  וַתֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עֲבָדֶיךָ, הוֹרִדֻהוּ, אֵלָי; וְאָשִׂימָה עֵינִי, עָלָיו

.כב  וַנֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אֲדֹנִי, לֹא-יוּכַל הַנַּעַר, לַעֲזֹב אֶת-אָבִיו:  וְעָזַב אֶת-אָבִיו, וָמֵת

20 And we said unto my lord: We have an elderly father (Yaakov), and a young child of his old age (Binyamin); and his brother is dead (Yosef), and he (Binyamin) alone is left of his mother, and his father loves him.

21 And you said to your servants: Bring him down to me, that I may set mine eyes on him.

22 And we said unto my lord: The child cannot leave his father; for if he should leave his father, his father would die.

Here it is clear as can be. It doesn’t matter if Binyamin wants to travel to Egypt or not. Binyamin’s needs and desires are irrelevant for Yaakov, he simply must have Binyamin nearby. Binyamin is not allowed to have any identity other than Yaakov’s son. Bereishit Love  doesn’t think about the lovee’s needs and simultaneously can’t live without the lovee. The danger of this type of love is holding someone so close that you subsume them, you erase their humanity.

However, Bereishit Love is not the only type of love in the Torah. We are see that there exists Commanded Love. In the Torah there appear three commandments to love. Let’s take a look:

Vayikra 19

.יח  לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.


Devarim 10

.יח  עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם, וְאַלְמָנָה; וְאֹהֵב גֵּר, לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה

.יט  וַאֲהַבְתֶּם, אֶת-הַגֵּר:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

18 He executes justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothes.

19 Love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.


Devarim 6

 וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ

5 And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

In all of these three cases, we are told to bring close that which often seems far away. Just as we told to keep God close to us, we also are told to keep our fellow and the ger close to us.

Bereishit Love is the danger of zero boundaries, but Commanded Love is responding to a danger at the opposite pole, that of holding people at too far of a distance. There is no commandment to love your husband or wife, or parents or children. That is because, love of family is natural. The primary danger of loving your family, is loving love in a way that doesn’t allow the lovee their own identity. This is what God is trying to warn us against in Bereishit. However, in the rest of the Torah, we are shown that there is another very real danger, that of insulating ourselves from building relationship with those distant from us. We must be commanded to love God, to love our fellow and the ger so that we will be part of something greater than just a family. If we follow these mitzvot we will be part of a holy community that takes care and builds connection with the others in its midst.

So as we transition from Bereishit to Shemot, may we all merit to bring both God and those who are far away, closer into our midst.    

Sam Englender (SBM 2015) is in his third year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.


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