My Favorite Card

The flower shop I go to sells all kinds of cards: congratulations, sympathy, bereavement, etc. My favorite is the “Just Because” card. You can say it with flowers for all kinds of reasons: Because your wife did or said something special. Because your wife gave birth. Because your wife turned 40. Or “just because.”

Just because is special because it transcends virtue. I knowWhen you love someone just because, you can overcome many obstacles that my wife is beautiful; I know she is smart; I know she is kind; I know she is devoted; I know she is a fabulous mother; I know she is a great teacher. But these qualities are not why I love her. I love her for who she is. Just because.1

When you love someone just because, you can overcome many obstacles. Consider the relationship between G‑d and our ancestors. The Jewish nation was traveling in the desert in high style: daily fine dining, a climate-controlled atmosphere, clothing with built-in laundry and stretching ability. Every need and luxury was provided for, yet the people complained, again and again.

The complainers were often punished, but there were many moans and groans that went unpunished. Despite the constant grumbling, G‑d continued to care for them, continued to love them. Why? What did they do to deserve His love? The answer can be summed up in two words: “just because.”

A Tale of Two Brides

The Talmud records a famous debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai:

What does one sing when dancing before the bride? Beit Shammai said, “The bride as she is.” Beit Hillel said, “The bride is beautiful and graceful.” Said the school of Shammai, “What if the bride is lame or blind, can we call her beautiful and graceful? Did the Torah not prohibit lying?” To which Beit Hillel replied, “When someone makes a purchase, shall we praise it or criticize it?2

Most students assume that Shamai was scrupulously honest and Hillel was gracefully generous. Hillel was willing to tell a white lie for the sake of peace. Shamai was not. But here is a different approach.

The Torah tells us to love our fellow, irrespective of who they are and how they behave. It is easy to love and respect our friends. People with grace and charm are not hard to like. But what about those who are rude and uncouth, grumpy and mean? What about those who are cruel and hound us, or those who put on airs and ignore us? It is difficult to love them. And yet we must. How?

This was the crux of the debate between Hillel and Shammai. The lame bride is a metaphor for friends who are never there for you, who never come to your aid. The blind bride is a metaphor for people who won’t even acknowledge your existence. How can you find something nice to say about these people? It’s easy to compliment and love your close friends, but what about those who don’t treat you well?

Look Again

Beit Hillel says: Everyone has a saving grace, and if we haven’t found it, it means we haven’t looked hard enough. Someone who made a purchase did so because he saw something worthwhile in his find. The groom who married this bride saw something beautiful in her. If you haven’t found value, it is because you haven’t looked in the right places or in the right way.

When we encounter the socially blind and lame and can’t find a kind thing to say about them, Hillel advises us to look again. Don’t assume they have no heart. Don’t assume they are made of stone. If someone out there loves them, and if they love in return, they must have some good qualities. Don’t give up on them just because they ignore you. One day, you will see their heart.

Just Because

Shammai says: There is no need to search for their heart. You can love them even without seeing their heart. You can love them “just because,” just as they are. “The bride as she is.” When you see someone’s strengths and beautiful traits, you love them for their traits. But when you see someone with no redeeming traits, no discernible value, there is an amazing opportunity, a chance to love them as they are, just because.

Who says love must be reciprocated? For the most part, we want those we love to love us in return. But we can also love without rhyme or reason. Most people don’t give us the chance, but when you encounter a social misfit, who gives you every reason to hate him, you have a chance to love just because.

This person may not be likable or kind or considerate, but he is your fellow. This kind of love is not so different from a parent’s love for their child. Surely a parent finds reasons to be proud of their child. They boast of the child’s knowledge, talents and achievements, but these qualities are not why they love their child. In love, they transcend all the child’s character traits and features. They love just because.

With friends you hardly get that chance. Says Shammai: When you run into the fellow you can’t stand, don’t treat him as an inconvenience to flee from. This person presents an opportunity for you to embrace.3 And when you do open yourself to this love, you might even enjoy his company. You never could have imagined it, but once you arouse in yourself a sense of fellowship, you might trigger a real bond with this person.

Now you can love him for real. Not because he changed his stripes, but because you touched his truth—buried under layers of fears and insecurities. This is why the Talmud concludes that at weddings in Israel, the common refrain was, “No powder, no paint, no hair-waving, and yet graceful.” I might not be able to find a single redeeming feature, but when I insist on loving despite it all, I discover the grace within the other person.

Love Is Blind

This is the kind of love that G‑d displayed toward our ancestors. At times they behaved as children should, and gave G‑d pleasure. AtWhen you open yourself to it, you might even enjoy his company such times, their relationship was robust. Then there were times when they pestered G‑d with petty and wicked complaints. And then the relationship would deepen even further. Just because.

When the Babylonians broke into the Holy of Holies when the first Temple was destroyed, they found the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant facing each other, a sign of G‑d’s love for His children.4 G‑d was punishing them by destroying the Temple, and yet He was loving. Because intrinsic love depends little on good behavior. On the contrary, it is strongest when our behavior is atrocious. When necessary, G‑d does punish, but always with love. The transcendent and unlimited love of just because.5