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A History of Love

A History of Love


Man, by nature, is a selfish creature. Even in his relationships with others he tends to focus primarily on himself or, at most, on his self-colored perception of his fellow. “Love” is the endeavor to transcend this intrinsic selfishness and truly relate to one’s fellow, to be sensitive to and devoted to his or her needs as an individual distinct from oneself and one’s own stake in the relationship.

And yet, when the Torah speaks of the mitzvah (divine commandment) to “love your fellow as yourself,” it does so in the context of man’s duty to influence, and even change, the behavior and nature of his fellow man. In Leviticus 19 (verses 18–19), the Torah commands:

Do not hate your brother in your heart; repeatedly rebuke your fellow, and do not attribute sin to him. Do not take revenge, or harbor hatred toward your people, and love your fellow as yourself; I am G‑d.

As the commentaries explain, there are two possible reactions a person can have toward a fellow who has wronged him, or whom he sees behaving in a morally deficient manner: 1) he can despise him in his heart, regarding him as a “sinner,” and perhaps even persecute him for his “sins”; 2) he can rebuke him in an effort to convince him of the folly of his ways and seek to influence him to change them. The path of love, says the Torah, is not to to “hate your brother in your heart,” but to “repeatedly rebuke” him and seek to better him.

Obviously, the desire to influence is consistent with the idea of love. No one would stand by as a loved one suffers hunger or is threatened by violence; no less so, if one sees someone he loves suffering from spiritual malnutrition or moral blindness, he will make every effort to reach out to him, to enlighten him, to offer guidance and assistance. But this aspect of loving behavior carries an inherent paradox. On the one hand, the endeavor to influence and change implies a departure from self and a concern with the wellbeing of the other. On the other hand, it implies a seemingly selfish view of the other: a rejection of the other as he is, and a desire to impose upon him one’s own perception of what is good for him.

Four Biblical Prototypes

An exploration of the history of humanity, as recounted in the Torah, reveals four figures who personified four different points of reference on the relationship between self and fellow.

Each of these individuals was considered the most righteous of his generation. Thus, their lives can be seen to reflect four stages in the spiritual development of humanity—four stages in the movement from an instinctive selfhood toward the complete abnegation of self and self-interest in relating to others. Our examination of this process will also shed light on the acceptance/nonacceptance dilemma inherent in the love relationship.

The first of these four outstanding individuals was Enoch, a great-great-great-great-grandson of Adam, who was born in the year 622 from creation (3139 BCE). By his time, humanity had abandoned the one G‑d of their fathers, and had succumbed to idolatry and pagan perversity. Only Enoch still “walked with G‑d.”

But Enoch’s righteousness was wholly selfish: he was preoccupied only with the refinement and perfection of his own spiritual self. The Midrash even relates that for many years he disassociated himself from his corrupt generation and secluded himself in a cave.

Not only did Enoch fail to have a lasting impact on his society, but he was ultimately in danger of being influenced by their corrupt behavior. This is why Enoch died at the “tender young age” of 365 (compared with the 800- to 900-year lifespans of his contemporaries): “G‑d took him to Himself” before his time, lest the only righteous man of the generation also be lost.

For such is the relationship of an individual with his environment: there is no sustained equilibrium. Where there is contact there is a flow, in one direction or the other; one either influences his society or is influenced by it.

The 120-Year Failure

Several generations later, we encounter another righteous man in a corrupt generation: Noah, builder of the ark and regenerator of humanity after the Flood.

In Noah, we find the first stirrings of a departure from self to improve and rehabilitate one’s fallen fellow. In the year 1536 from creation (2225 BCE) G‑d told Noah that “the end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence,” and that He therefore intends to “bring a deluge of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh” and start anew with Noah and his family. Noah is instructed to build an ark so that they could survive the Flood. Our sages relate that Noah worked on the ark’s construction a full one hundred and twenty years; all this time, he called out to his generation to mend its ways and avoid catastrophe.

However, the Zohar criticizes Noah for the fact that, despite his efforts, he did not pray for the salvation of his generation, unlike Abraham and Moses, who pleaded with G‑d to spare the wicked. This implies that, ultimately, it did not matter to Noah what became of them. Had he truly cared, he would not have sufficed with doing his best to bring them to repent, but would have implored the Almighty to repeal His decree of destruction—just as one who is personally threatened would never say, “Well, I did my best to save myself” and leave it at that, but would beseech G‑d to help him.

In other words, Noah’s involvement with others was limited to his sense of what he ought to do for them, as opposed to a true concern for their wellbeing. His “self” had sufficiently broadened to include the imperative to act for the sake of another, recognizing that the lack of a “social conscience” is a defect in one’s own character; but he fell short of transcending the self to care for others beyond the consideration of his own righteousness.

This also explains a curious aspect of Noah’s efforts to reach out to his generation. When the Flood came, Noah and his family entered the ark—alone. His 120-year campaign yielded not a single baal teshuvah (repentant)! Perhaps public relations was never Noah’s strong point, but how are we to explain the fact that, in all this time, he failed to win over a single individual?

But in order to influence others, one’s motives must be pure; in the words of our sages, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” Deep down, a person will always sense whether you truly have his interests at heart, or whether you’re filling a need of your own by seeking to change him. If your work to enlighten your fellow stems from a desire to “do the right thing”—to observe the mitzvot to “love your fellow as yourself” and “rebuke your fellow”—but without really caring about the result, your call will be met with scant response. The echo of personal motive, be it the most laudable of personal motives, will be sensed, if only subconsciously, by the object of your efforts, and will ultimately put him off.

The Departure from Self

Ten generations later was born an individual who raised the concept of man’s devotion to the welfare of his neighbor to new and selfless heights. This man was Abraham, the first Jew.

Abraham, too, faced a corrupt and pagan world; indeed, his title, “the Hebrew,” is associated with the fact that “the entire world stood on one side, and he stood on the other.” After coming to recognize the Creator, he devoted his life to bringing the belief and ethos of a one G‑d to his generation. Wherever he went, he “caused G‑d’s name to be known in the world.” Abraham also concerned himself with the more mundane needs of his fellows, offering his tent as an open house of refreshment and lodging for all desert wayfarers, regardless of spiritual station.

The selflessness of Abraham’s concern for his fellow is demonstrated by his daring intervention on behalf of the five sinful cities of the Sodom valley. G‑d had decided to destroy these cities for their wicked ways. Abraham petitioned G‑d on their behalf, using the strongest terms to demand of G‑d that he spare these cities for the sake of the few righteous individuals they might contain. “It behooves You not to do such a thing,” he challenged G‑d, “to slay the righteous with the wicked . . . Shall the judge of the universe not act justly?!” Abraham put his own spiritual integrity at risk for the sake of the most corrupt of sinners; he was prepared to incur G‑d’s wrath upon himself, giving precedence to their physical lives over his own relationship with the Almighty.

And because people sensed that he had their own good—and only their own good—at heart, they responded. When Abraham and Sarah left Charan for the Holy Land, they were joined by the “souls which they had made in Charan”—the community of men and women who had rallied to their cause. Sixty-five years later, he was able to say to his servant Eliezer: “When G‑d summoned me from the house of my father, He was G‑d of the heavens but not of the earth: the inhabitants of the earth did not recognize Him, and His name was not referred to in the land. But now that I have made His name familiar in the mouths of His creatures, He is G‑d in both heaven and earth.”

No Strings Attached

But even Abraham’s love is still not the ultimate. It took another four centuries for the epitome of selfless devotion to one’s fellow to emerge, in the person of Moses.

Abraham’s virtue over Noah was that his objective in relating to others lay not in realizing the potential of his social self (as was the case with Noah), but in achieving the desired result: to transform their behavior and character, bringing to light their good and perfect essence. But therein also lies the limitation of Abraham’s love: ultimately, Abraham’s kindness had an ulterior motive. True, it was not a personal motive; true, it was a motive that spells the recipient’s ultimate good, and is consistent with the recipient’s true self; but it was an ulterior motive nonetheless.

Our sages describe how Abraham’s hospitality was but a means to achieve his goal of converting his guests to a belief in G‑d. The same is true of Abraham’s valiant prayer on behalf of the Sodomites. He beseeched G‑d to spare them because of the righteous in their midst—as long as righteous individuals remain in a city, there is hope for the wicked as well. On a deeper level, he was referring to the “righteous one” within the wicked person, his inner potential for good; spare them, Abraham was saying, because perhaps the good in them will triumph yet. As soon as he became aware that the wicked of Sodom were beyond hope, he ceased his prayers.

Such love and concern—for the sake of the potential good that one sees in another—is a love that is tainted, however minutely, with selfishness: one is relating to one’s fellow not as one’s fellow sees himself, but with an eye to one’s own vision of him. This allows for a reaction on his part (expressed, unexpressed, or even unconscious) that “you don’t care for me as I am, only for what you wish to make of me. So you don’t really care about me at all.” True, one’s only desire is to reveal the other’s essential self; but this is a deeper, still unrealized, self. One’s love fails to address the other as he now expressly is, focusing instead on one’s knowledge of what he latently is, and on what he can and ought to make of himself.

In contrast, Moses’ love for his people was utterly selfless. His was an unconditional love, one that is unassuming of what they ought to be or what they are on a deeper, yet unrealized level. He loved them as they were, and did everything in his power to satisfy their needs, both material and spiritual.

When Moses pleaded with G‑d on behalf of the worshippers of the Golden Calf, he did not say, “Forgive them because they will repent,” or “Forgive them for they carry great potential,” only, “Forgive them. And if You won’t, erase me from Your Torah.” Either You accept the sinner as he is, or put together a nation and a Torah without me.

The difference between Moses and his predecessors is also reflected in the extent of their influence on their fellows. Enoch, with his wholly self-directed righteousness, had no influence, and was himself susceptible to influence. Noah—who extended himself to his fellows, but only because he recognized that concern for one’s fellow is an integral part of a perfect self—was not influenceable, but did not influence. Abraham’s teaching and instruction, free of such personal bias, was embraced by multitudes of followers; but since even Abraham’s efforts fell short of the pure definition of selflessness, his influence was correspondingly limited. Today, we have no traceable heirs to Abraham’s disciples. (What, indeed, ever became of the “souls they had made in Charan”?) But the effects of Moses’ utterly selfless love are eternal: his guidance and leadership of his people yielded a nation whose endurance and unbroken continuity, to this very day, defies all laws of history.

“Outreach” Redefined

In order to truly influence a fellow, we must devote ourselves to him or her without regard to whether he or she will be influenced or not. He is a fellow human being who needs your help. So help him. If she lacks something material, help her. If she is spiritually lost, help her. Many can see the point of influencing a fellow Jew to do a good deed, a mitzvah—to put on tefillin, to perform a single act of charity, to avoid a moral transgression—if this leads to a greater involvement, and ultimately, a complete transformation. But when confronted with a “lost case,” they feel it’s a waste of time. Why bother?

Why bother? Because you care about him, not only about what he ought to be, what he will be, or what you see in him. He lacks something now, and you are privileged to be of assistance. If you care for him because you expect to influence him, then chances are he won’t respond. But if you care for him whether he responds or not, then he will respond.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Emanuele Brescia November 18, 2016

It is a privilege to read such deep and heart-touching words, thank you. Reply

inge reisinger zwickau May 13, 2016

i love the comments from all over the world to see what they think of it great thank you Reply

Bill Kentucky May 12, 2016

To consider a "lost cause" is analogous the how the South still experiences those from the North. The insight is on point, though to understand the depth of a spirit trying to find/discover and ultimately become aware of the Gifts, that is inherent to the ONEness of life, can take apart of a life or cause one to travel into areas not by personal choice, but perhaps in response to generations of belief systems. No one though is really ever a lost cause, no family, for without a presence experienced of and touched by the Divine, there would be no hope. For to discover the renewal of life, then and only then does one begin to comprehend the depth and movement by and through the River of Consciousness.... Genealogy may be of some importance, though how and why our learning to learn experiences is independent -- more one of interdependency as a verb being the plane is never static... In reading Torah, does one realize the dance inherent to the words being spoken? Reply

Claudia Niriam Cali Colombia April 25, 2014

Well, this has been an answer to my prayers! Thanks Reply

Katherine SF April 25, 2014

Noah Noah was perfect in his generations in that it is addressing genealogy. Why? The previous verses discuss the angels that co mingled by humans and produce hybrids only Noah and a few others was not affected.. Reply

Anonymous Gainesville, Fl April 25, 2014

This all may be right, and probably is so....however, for me personally, it is well nigh impossible to love all of our Jewish community unconditionally!!! (as well as many in the non-Jewish population) In order to more adroitly explain this, let me use the example of certain Jewish politicians. There are at least a few in NYC, Washington DC, south Florida, and Israel who turn me so totally "off" with their arrogant pronouncements and publically revealed actions, that I simply cannot tap any source of love within myself for them. No real hatred there, just a total void of a shred of love. It's probably a character flaw and a reason to try to overcome it...but those efforts haven't worked well...and I am now nearly 80! Oh well, everyone can't be a rebbe or rebbitzen. Reply

Joseph Solomon Orlando, FL. October 17, 2013

Selfless Acceptance It takes self confidence and a strong belief that holiness i.e. goodness will ultimately prevail in order to accept people according to who they are currently. How much do we really believe in the promise of the Torah, in the promise of Hashem? For those of us who believes without question in a final redemption, in final salvation we should understand that G-d is working in the lives of everyone, Jews and gentiles. We need only stand strong on the other side of the spiritual/moral divide in order to help G-d bring the world to its destiny. We must seek only to set an example of how a righteous or devout person serves G-d and treats people in every possible circumstance life can present. Let us be the unyielding example and standard that most can and should look to for wisdom, guidance, and a proper course for successful living without discounting, dismissing, limiting, or diminishing anybodies potential growth because of judging, because of our own expectations and standards for others. Reply

NICOLAS usa April 19, 2013

This is why Enoch died at the “tender young age” of 365 no where in the Torah says that he died? Reply

Yisroel April 17, 2013

Thanks This is the best Reply

Anonymous April 17, 2013

Good advice If you just talk to them, that's your mitzvah fulfillment. They may not demonstrate an interest. They may mull it over privately and let you know later, or not. At least you let them know where you stand and give them something to think about. Reply

John Smith FL April 16, 2013

Exodus And someday soon (I hope) there will be another Exodus from the Pharaoh, so these feelings of resentment and hate will be no longer. Who will part the Red Sea this time around? Reply

Shoshi miami beach, fl November 11, 2011

Excellent!! Very nice article.....enough said! Reply

GB NJ October 27, 2011

...but what about " Deep down, a person will always sense whether you truly have his interests at heart, or you're filling a need of your own by seeking to change him. "
...isn't the fact that your looking to "change"- them an expression of your deep love for them- ie-the fact that your trying to influence one in Torah and Mitzvos- your way of helping them reach into their G-dly inner self...being in touch with G-d feels good for you, and you want to share that good feeling with others. How is this way of thinking wrong ? If you just say the way I am (or others) is fine- then you'll never change for the better, you'll be blind to your faults. Is it perhaps saying that you'll only care about that aspect and nothing else that the other might need? Can you explain? Reply

Anonymous October 22, 2010

Comment The article is amazing.
Firstly, in response to one of the comments, it might be that the article is stressing not who the love is for, but what kind of love it is.

Secondly, the unbounded love would not apply to Amalek, on the contrary we are supposed to hate Amalek and wipe them out. Hence hating them would be a mitzvah and Moses surely hated the purely evil Amalek. Amalek are like the Nazis (and most Nazi's were probably Amalek.)
Hence the point, I think of the article, is not about who the love was for, but rather what kind of love it was (that is on what level.)
I might have got some stuff wrong in this comment, so apologize in advance. Reply

Anonymous London, UK via October 19, 2010

Love Him for Who he is This article praises Moses for loving his people for who they were and criticises Abraham for not loving Sodom for who they were (i.e. people who wanted to rape and murder)

Would Moses love the Nazis for who they were, and would we praise him for that?

How far does this loving your fellow for who they are go? Are we expected to Love the Nazis for who they were? Reply

Carmen Sydney, Australia September 3, 2009

experimenting? Don't know if I'd say He was experimenting on us, maybe testing us would be a better word?

As for the article I agree it was excellent. so THAT's why my Mashpia put up with me for all those years! :) Reply

Anonymous March 17, 2009

Sometimes the best way of helping someone is to stop helping him.
I myself used to have a very, very selfdestructive lifestyle. It put my life at risk, and I didn't even care.
Untill my girlfriend dumped me for this reason. She broke up with me because I didn't fight my tendency for destructive behaviour.
That was the great turning point for me. From then on, I fought my destructivism, and conquered it eventually...
Breaking up with me was the most loving thing she could ever do. By this, she's helped me better than anyone else. Reply

Rik den Herder Delft, the Netherlands March 17, 2009

Is G-d experimenting with us? I was delighted to read this article! But when I told my best friend about this article, (he's reading the first book of Torah the first time), he asked me: 'It's almost as if G-d is an alien, trying all kinds of experiments on us'. This question was not meant blasphemous, but raised by sincere doubt. And I couldn't reply to him. Is G-d experimenting with the human race? What would you have answered?
Shalom for you! Reply



Anonymous Brooklyn, USA November 13, 2005

To clarify some for some of the other comments; loving someone for who they are does not mean that we must allow them to remain in that state G-d forbid. It means that we cannot refrain from helping them simply because they are drug users and the like. We must love them because they are fellow humans We have to think that had we been in their shoes we may have been far worse. Only then can we and should we try and improve them, but the love must come first and be genuine - not conditional on future improvements. Reply

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