All You Need is Love, But What Is It?

20 Nov 2011

When my husband and I go to a wedding or sheva brachot, and listen to the bride and groom get up and say how much they “loooove” each other, we shoot each other looks and try not to laugh. They know what love is? Yeah, right.

You can’t compare the love I had for my husband on my wedding day to the love I have for him now, 21 years and 5 kids later, and everything that we have been through together. What have this bride and groom been through together? They planned a wedding—whoopee.

If I ask the groom to write down his definition of love and marriage, and then ask the bride to also write down hers, and they hand me their definitions, what do you think I would see? That’s right, two different definitions. If a man and woman are in a marriage and want it to be filled with love, yet they define love and marriage differently, we have a problem. At the very minimum, they should have a mutual definition of what they are in and trying to achieve.

So what is love? And how do I get there? It certainly is not always what they describe in songs, or what people on the movie screen are being paid to pretend it is.

“Love is the emotion one feels when focusing in on the virtues of the other, and identifying them with those virtues.” – Rabbi Noah Weinberg, Rosh HaYeshiva of Aish HaTorah

If I ask a woman who is pregnant, “Are you going to love your new baby?” She will of course answer, “Yes.”

But how does she know? She hasn’t met the baby yet. Perhaps he or she will come out like the snotty brats next door.

You know why every mother and father know they will love their baby? Because even before they were born, they made a choice to love them, no matter how they came out: extrovert, introvert, quick-tempered, easygoing…it does not matter. And have you ever noticed that no one ever falls out of love with their children? Can you imagine me calling up Jewish Family Services and telling them, “You know, I want to give one of mine back. What can I do? I fell out of love.”

We never fall out of love with our children, and yet we claim to with our spouses. And this is the person we chose above all others, after so much deliberation, investigation and comparison. What does it mean to “fall out of love” with this person?

In a lot of cases, people simply stopped choosing to focus on their virtues. Everyone has their stuff: the good, the bad and the ugly. Focusing on someone’s virtues does not mean we are blind to their faults. Not at all. Who knows your kids good qualities better than you? No one. And who knows your kids challenging qualities better than you do? No one. And yet if someone asks me to describe my kids, I will immediately start telling you all these amazing qualities they have, not just because I am a bragging Jewish mother, but because that is how I see them. Even while knowing all of their faults, character flaws and foibles, I love each and every one of them, because every day I choose to focus in on all their goodness.

The same works with spouses. We so easily slip into a life where we focus in on our spouses mistakes, both in character and in deed. My husband, the rabbi, is not perfect. I could easily choose to focus in on the negative, but what would that get me? A lousy marriage, that’s what.

One tool that I have used with couples going through a rough time is to have them write down why they married the person they married. They usually do not want to do it, but I press. I make them describe their spouse, remembering how they saw them just before they got engaged. Then they show me the list. I look at it and ask, “How many of those qualities do they still have today?
Almost 100% of the time, 100% of the things on the list still apply today.

What’s going on? It’s so easy to forget why we married them. It takes effort to remember, but believe me, it’s worth the effort.

“Love is, what is important to you, is important to me.” – Rabbi Noah Orlowek

I once met David Weiss, a Hollywood screenwriter, who, amongst other things, was the head writer for the movie, Shrek II. He told me that the theme of the film came from something he learned from his rabbi, (who learned from Rabbi Orlowek) that love is, what’s important to you, is important to me. And he told me he would go into the writers’ meetings and tell them to keep everything to that theme.

My parents taught me this many years ago. My mother and father are very different people. How can I describe how different? Well, my mother’s idea of a great vacation is going backpacking in Nepal on 24 hours notice. And she is in her 70’s. My father’s idea of a great vacation is an air conditioned bus tour of Miami that he has been planning for six months. Get it? Very different people.
They have been happily married for over 50 years. How on earth do they make it work?

My mother loves the arts and culture. So they have a subscription to the Toronto Symphony, and once a month my father goes with her, holds her hand, listens to the concert, and tries not to fall asleep. My father is a real “guy’s guy” and loves sports. So they have season tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs. All winter long my mother goes to the games with him, holds his hand, watches the action, and tries to pretend this is not stupid.

We don’t have a television at home, but when I travel and speak, I always turn on ESPN in the hotel room. Why? So I can come home and tell my 14-year old son (who is sports crazy), “Moshe, I saw Shack, and his neck is as big as a tree trunk. And I saw Kobe, you should see all of his tattoos. And I saw The Mailman…”

Do you know why they call him “The Mailman”? Because he delivers. I know this stuff! And when I tell Moshe all of this, he looks at me and his eyes light up. He knows I don’t love sports. But I love my Moshe. And love is, what is important to you is important to me.

“Love is, giving to another.” – Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler

Rabbi Dessler asks in Strive For Truth: Does loving lead to giving, or does giving lead to loving? Do I love you so I give to you, or the more I give, the more I love?

The Jewish answer is: The more you give, the more you love.

Did you ever wonder why human beings come into this world in a very different way than most other creatures in the animal kingdom? I don’t know about you, but when I had my first baby, Shoshana, I was completely overwhelmed at how helpless she was. She couldn’t do anything on her own. Without me, she couldn’t eat, roll over, or even burp on her own! A deer will have a fawn, they will nurse, be a little shaky, but then quite quickly leave and have its own independent life.

It seems to me that Hashem made it very different with humans, so that right from the beginning, we would be forced to give, and give and give. And what do we get back for the first few months: sleepless nights, throw up down our back, and diarrhea down our front. And we love these babies more than life itself.

Just before I got married I asked Rebbetzin Faygie Twersky, if she could give me one piece of marital advice, what would it be? She said, “You should wake up every morning, and the first things you should ask yourself is ‘What can I give to my spouse today?”

“Oh,” I said. “Thanks.”

“No, no, no, Lori,” she countered. “You think it sounds easy, but it’s not. Every day, one extra act of giving: picking up the dry cleaning for them, sending an encouraging email, a Post It love note on their steering wheel… In the lifetime of a marriage, this adds up to tens of thousands of acts of giving. And she told me that unless you are G-d forbid in an abusive relationship, don’t worry about getting. If you are in giving mode, that inspires everyone in your house to do the same.”

I once gave an assignment to a group of women coming to my class. I told them that this week we would all do one extra act of giving a day to our husbands. The next week we gathered and reported back. One woman said that is was remarkable. She was making herself a cup of tea and remembered that she hadn’t done her assignment that day, so she asked her husband if he would like a cup of tea too. “Yes,” he answered, somewhat surprised. She said the next day when he was making a cup of tea; he turned to her and said, “Honey, would you also like a cup of tea?” They sat and drank tea together.

She turned to the class and said, “This stuff really works.”

If you want to love someone more, give to them. It will become contagious.

Yes, our Torah contains incredible wisdom about every aspect of life, including wisdom about love. And, yes, it really does work.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.