Love. It’s a loaded four-letter word.

Just as a flower needs water to grow, every person needs to be loved in order to feel nourished.

The Kabbalists go so far as say that G‑d created the universe in order to experience love.

Rabbi Akiva says that loving another as you love yourself is “a cardinal principle in the Torah.” And the great sage Hillel even declared, “This is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary.”

So, love is crucial. But what is love, really? Does love mean accepting others just as they are?

Here’s the problem.Love. It’s a loaded four-letter word

On the one hand, if I do not accept another as he is, doesn’t it mean I don’t really love him? I love only what I wish to make of him.

On the other hand, to love someone also means that I care for him and desire the best for him. And since very, very few people are the best that they can be, doesn’t caring for someone mean not accepting him as he is, but rather believing in his potential to be better, and doing everything I can to reveal that potential?

So, what is love?

Three Kinds of Love

I think there are (at least) three kinds of love.

I like to call them Blind Love, Strategic Love and Intrinsic Love.

Let’s start with Blind Love.

Blind Love

Have you heard of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev? To me, he epitomized Blind Love.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, one of the most beloved of chassidic leaders, is often called the “Lover of Israel.” He lived during the 1700s. Hundreds of stories highlight his legendary, unconditional love for the Jewish people and his characteristic role of advocating on behalf of the Jewish nation.

He once said, “If after I pass away I have the option of either being alone in paradise or going to purgatory in the company of other Jews, I would certainly choose the latter—as long as I’m together with other Jews!”

Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak noticed a Jew greasing the wheels of his buggy while in the middle of prayer, wearing his tallit and tefillin. Instead of rebuking him, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak turned to G‑d and cried out, “G‑d, look at how holy Your nation is. Even while greasing the wheels of their buggies, they wear tallit and tefillin . . .”

On another occasion he addressed G‑d: “Master of the Universe, You have placed all the earthly temptations before our eyes, while the spiritual benefits and rewards for following Your will are relegated to the books we study. That is quite unfair! Reverse the situation. Fill our senses with an appreciation for spirituality, and consign all material pleasures to the library shelves. See, then, how few people will sin!”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s absolutely unconditional love for his fellow Jews can be compared to the kind of love a parent feels for a newborn. From that first embrace, the parent can’t see any imperfection. The child is the epitome of all that is good and right.

We often experience Blind Love during the dating process. At one point, when we “fall in love” with our spouse-to-be, we may be blind to any faults and notice only his or her good qualities. Any hint of negativity is immediately excused, attributed to other circumstances.

In fact, often the characteristics that irritate spouses most about each other are those very qualities they initially found so alluring and attractive. So, for example, a wife who complains that her husband is “irresponsible” or “reckless” may have been attracted to those very same We love someone to such an extent that we do not even see his faultsqualities, which she initially viewed as “adventurous” or “fun-loving.” Or, for example, a spouse’s “stinginess” may have been interpreted during the dating stage as a positive sense of “responsibility.“

So, Blind Love means we love someone to such an extent that we do not even see his faults.

Funny, there are those that say that when a baby is born the parent is blind to any wrong, but as the child enters his or her teens the parent is blind to any good. Kind of like marriage . . .

Which brings us to the second kind of love. I call this love Strategic Love.

Strategic Love

Strategic Love means that we see the negative qualities that the individual has, but we focus instead on the positive in order to effect change. We realize that focusing on the negative will only make things worse, so instead we make a concerted effort to look for and concentrate only on the positive, with the ultimate goal of bringing out the qualities we desire.

Books on behavioral psychology use this tactic all the time. They tell us to “catch” our children—especially the ones with challenging or irritating behavior—doing something positive. Catch them doing the act and then praise them. By showering them with positive praise, we reinforce their good behavior.

So, Strategic Love means being able to see the good and the bad of the individual, but choosing to overlook the bad in order to accentuate and bring out all the good. You see his potential and you magnify it, with the hope that his potential will become who he is.

Mothers of teenagers are renowned for practicing Strategic Love.

So are smart wives.

Strategic Love can be very effective, empowering the individual to reach higher. But it is also a limited love and, in extreme situations, can backfire. If you think about it, in essence, you are really loving the person not for who he is but for whom you are hoping you can make him become.

So a spouse or child might feel loved conditionally—loved only if and when he is doing what you want him to do.

Intrinsic Love

The third kind of love I call Intrinsic Love.

I think the Lubavitcher Rebbe typified this kind of love. The Rebbe’s love for every Jew, no matter who he was or where he was at, was real and palpable. It was not a means to a goal, but rather totally and completely unconditional.

Yet, at the same time, almost paradoxically, the Rebbe pushed people to change themselves, to reach higher, to strive to be more, to constantly improve.

But here, I think, is the crux of this love—because the love was so real, because he saw the infinite greatness of every individual, that’s why he wanted the person to be even more.

The message wasn’t “You aren’t good the way you are,” but rather, “Because of your infinite value and capability, because of how great you are, you need to strive to be even more.”

The Rebbe often asked people to report to him on what they were doing; he wanted to hear about even the seemingly small efforts. Why? Because he considered it of infinite He wanted to hear about even the seemingly small effortsimportance and value, as if the tiny good deed you just did or the program that you just organized was the most amazing thing in the world.

Because it was!

But at the same time, he didn’t let us rest on our laurels, but always demanded, “So, what’s next? What’s your next program? What’s the next good thing that you are working on? And it should be even more than what you already did!”

Not because we aren’t good enough, but because if we have the power to do this infinitely amazing and important thing, how can we not do more?

And this, I believe, is the healthiest—and most empowering—approach that we can foster towards others, as well as towards ourselves.

Negative Self-Talk

When Rabbi Akiva says that we need to love another as we love ourselves, we understand that we need to love others. But we obviously can’t “love someone as we love ourselves” if we don’t feel any love towards ourselves.

Often, we bombard ourselves with critical self-talk. We tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not skinny enough, not ambitious enough, not efficient enough, and on and on.

Advertisements, too, are constantly assaulting us, telling us that if we purchase this product, vacation in this place, lose this much weight or achieve this kind of academic success, only then will we be “good enough.”

As a result, many of us have internalized voices that constantly criticize us with their messages about how we just don’t measure up. These critiquing voices can be so self-defeating, almost convincing us that we aren’t really worthy of love. These voices also paralyze us, preventing us from even trying to reach higher.

On the other hand, if we don’t see our faults or our challenges, if we do not acknowledge the areas in which we really do not measure up, how in the world will we strive to reach higher and become more?

This is where I think the message of Intrinsic Love is key.

Intrinsic Love is not a blind love, like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s, where we do not see the faults or negativity within ourselves or others. We are very well aware of how we can and should improve.

But it is also not a negative message of “you’re not good enough as you are.” It is not even “be more” or “try Intrinsic Love is not a blind loveharder.” It is not a love for the improved version of ourselves.

Intrinsic Love is an unconditional love for who we are. But precisely because each of us has this infinite, G‑d-given power and ability, we can demand of ourselves to be even better.

Not because we are lacking, but because of the infinite goodness that we are.

So, when we wake up in the morning, we need to see a new view of ourselves. Yesterday was good—great even—but today can be even better.

Precisely because of how good—and beloved—we are.