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Love is a Discipline Too

May 1, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

This week, the Torah came to me from Twitter.

About a week ago, I saw the following exchange. Jonathan Shalit, a British talent manager, tweeted this: “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with 1) a new skill 2) your side hustle started 3) more knowledge—you never lacked time. You lacked discipline.”

Take a moment to feel however you are feeling about that statement. Inadequacy? Guilt? Jealousy? Frustration? Anger? Maybe, if you’re one of the select few that is not completely overwhelmed with work, caretaking, or generalized anxiety during this crisis, you are feeling a tiny glimmer of smug pride. That’s okay, too. No judgment.

Then came this brilliant response from Reconstructionist Rabbi Emily Cohen, “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with 1) gratitude for life 2) commitment to deeper compassion for your neighbor 3) rage at the American healthcare system—you never lacked knowledge. You lacked heart.”

I don’t mean to shame Shalit for his statement. There is truth in both tweets. Right now, I’m looking at a bunch of unread books in my house going: if you don’t read these during the pandemic, you are never going to read them. I will admit to making—and continuing to make—long lists of things I want to accomplish during this lockdown. And as for “new skills” and “more knowledge,” the biggest progress I’ve made has been learning how, and when, to take things off that list. Whether we made lists of not, we have all been learning how to reevaluate what is possible, what is realistic, and most importantly, what matters. That, too, is a discipline.

Which brings me to Rabbi Cohen’s tweet. While some quarantine achievements are optional—and, perhaps, not super realistic—some of the lessons of this lockdown are mandatory. While it would be great if we learned how to bake bread or sew masks, play the ukulele or speak Mandarin, it would be even better if this time helped us to cultivate gratitude, compassion, and a thirst for justice.

(By the way, it’s okay if you’re not there yet: that just means you need to show yourself a little compassion first. Take your time. The world will still need fixing when you’re ready).

Gratitude, compassion, and a thirst for justice may sound like emotions that we feel. But they are also a discipline.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim contains what Rabbi Akiva said was the most important verse in the Torah: v’ahavta l’reyecha kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). It also holds the commandment to “love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34).

Here and elsewhere, we get specifics on how we should treat our neighbors and the stranger. But there is a question that has plagued commentators for centuries: Can God/the Torah really command us to love our neighbor, and to have empathy for the stranger? Aren’t those emotions? Isn’t our free will to be self-centered and ornery the one area in which God can’t legislate?

Perhaps we are not being commanded to feel love and empathy, but rather to act in a way that is loving and empathetic. Biblical scholar Abraham Malamat suggests that this passage, by using an odd phrasing that literally means, “love to your neighbor” is not “commanding us to feel something—love—but rather to do something—to be useful or beneficial to help your neighbor.” Rabbi Shai Held, paraphrasing Maimonides (Hilchot De’ot 1:6-7), provides this answer: “If we want to learn to feel compassion, we can engage in compassionate action, and through that transform our character over time. We cannot will ourselves to care in any simple, straightforward way, but we can train ourselves through committed, disciplined action to begin to feel things we previously did not. Perhaps, then, the Torah asks us to learn to love, to act in such ways as to nurture and instill love within ourselves. When we act lovingly, we may learn to feel love, which in turn, will lead us to act more lovingly—and so on, in a virtuous cycle” (The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 61-62, 64). Love is a discipline, and in a crisis, it can be just as difficult to practice as any new skill or old routine.

So maybe we won’t meet our fitness goal of running a “quarantine half-marathon.” But we can make sure that we are stretching the muscles of compassion and empathy, and running to help others when the opportunity arises. We may not learn a new language—or even master our children’s common core math homework—but we can learn about the needs of our neighbors, the gaping injustices of our society, and what might be required of us in order to face these challenges.

Because the best thing we can learn during this quarantine is who we are, what we are made of, and what we need to do to move forward. Rabbi Mary Zamore shared this reminder today: “The quality of our actions during a crisis is the most accurate measuring stick of our deepest values.” May our actions, during this crisis and beyond it, be grounded in gratitude, compassion, and justice. And no matter what chaos surrounds us, or what lists and plans need to be abandoned, may we be disciplined in our practice of love.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz