The Limits of Love – Ki Teitse

Sept. 17, 2016

CLICK HERE for Rabbi Sacks’s commentary

birch bark showing the shape of a heartThe idea of loving God and God’s love for the Jewish people is a major theme of Deuteronomy. In Leviticus, we also saw at its center, the obligation to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is a core message of the Torah.

In our world, the word “love” often means romantic love or emphasizes love as an emotion. In the Ancient Near East, “love” referred more strongly to service and a sense of obligation. A parent’s love for their children is a good analogy: we expect parents to be emotionally attached to their children but we also expect them to feed, clothe, and protect them. In a word, we expect parents to sacrifice for their children. When we are commanded to love God with all our heart, the meaning implies sacrifice and service, not just emotion.

In the parsha, the Torah sets up laws regarding inheritance that prevents a father from denying full rights to his first-born son of an unloved wife (in a plural marriage). The text seems a direct criticism of how Jacob treated the Reuben, his first-born son from Leah, who was an “unloved” wife versus his love, Rachel. Traditional commentators have struggled with how a patriarch could violate a Torah law, but Rabbi Sacks does see the parsha as criticizing Jacob, and teaching us about the limits of love as a guiding principle.

Love — at least in the sense of emotional attachment — needs to be balanced by justice and fairness. We don’t feel love towards everyone but we still have obligations to people we don’t love. And feeling an emotion is not the same as ensuring we are fulfilling our material obligations towards others.

The Torah is full of instructions because it is not enough to command love.

See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s commentary