Since time immemorial, man has turned to poetry and song to express the most powerful of human emotions. From Shakespeare’s sonnets to modern day ballads, love dominates the human experience.
Yet perhaps the word love has been cheapened in today’s parlance. How many times are those three little words ‘I love you’ uttered in vain, so carelessly by all and sundry whose true intentions belie the purity of that sacred phrase? When a person says “I love chicken” he doesn’t love the chicken, he loves himself. If he really loved the chicken he wouldn’t slaughter it and eat it. When we love another person for the way they make us feel or for the way they satisfy our needs, we are not thinking about them but about ourselves. We have confused love with dependency.
One of the first encounters of love in the Torah subtly expresses this point. Only after Isaac marries Rebecca does the verse say that he loved her (Genesis 24:67). Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (d. 1809) explains that there are two types of love. One is based on a natural yearning and physical desire, the other based on the spiritual greatness a couple can achieve together through growth and refinement (Kedushat Levi on Chayei Sarah). The former drives a couple together before marriage; the latter sustains them when confronted by the harsh, post-honeymoon realities of life.
In his book ‘The Art of Loving’ the social psychologist Erich Fromm encapsulates the idea as follows: Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.’
The Song of Songs is King Solomon’s description of the love between God and the Jewish people. Written emotively in the form of a stirring romance between lovers, its poetically elegant metaphor couches a much deeper concept. The love we experience in our lives, especially between husband and wife is a paradigm for our relationship with God.
The Mishnah explains that conditional love lasts only as long as the conditions are met. Unconditional love endures regardless (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:19, Green Siddur page 561). God’s love for His people is unconditional: “Even though I am black with sin, I am comely with virtue” (Song of Songs 1:5). The Midrash comments that even though I am black with sin in my own eyes, I am still comely before my Creator (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:5). Despite our infidelity, God will neither reject nor forsake us (Psalms 94:14).
We cannot hope to develop genuine love with someone from whom we use only as a means to satisfy our needs and pleasures. So too, we cannot hope to develop a relationship with God unless we are prepared to be faithful to Him with a depth of love, independent of validation or proof through our faulty perception of how the world should look. Only then will we truly be a rose among the thorns with eyes like doves behind our veil as beautiful as we once were in Jerusalem of old (Song of Songs 2:2, 4:1 and 6:4).