What is love? The word is used in so many ways and is so fundamental to Judaism, yet its meaning is so elusive that it is often difficult to know what it actually means to say that you love someone.
Perhaps the root of the difficulty lies in our having forgotten the essence of who we are as human beings. In our modern, technological world, many of us have lost touch with the Jewish understanding that each and every one of us is a holy soul. In Genesis 2:7, we read: “And God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.”
We learn from the 16th-century Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas’ treatise on love, “Shaar ha’Ahava (The Gate of Love):
You love your friend through your nefesh-soul, for the nefesh wants to love. Even though your body’s material substance separates you from your friend, the nefesh-soul of both of you is a spiritual entity and the tendency of the spirit is to make you cleave to your friend with unbroken unity.
When your nefesh-soul becomes aroused to love a friend, your friend’s nefesh-soul will be equally aroused to love you in return until both of your souls are bound to form one single entity….The power of the love between two people causes their nefesh-souls to become bound together.
Love occurs when my nefesh-soul and your nefesh-soul knit together. This idea is evident in the biblical description of David’s love for Jonathan:
“As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the nefesh-soul of Jonathan was knit to the nefesh-soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:1).
Perhaps the strongest “proof” that love is the bonding of nefesh-souls comes from what we experience when our love has been abandoned or betrayed. The unbearable pain we experience is the breaking apart of the nefesh-souls that had been woven together. That pain is not just as if we had been ripped apart; on the spiritual level, the severance is as real as the pain we feel.
What, then, can each of us do to foster nefesh-soul love? How can we become more loving and receive more love in return?
The late Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a master of Mussar (a Jewish spiritual practice to foster growth in character and actions), pointed to the close correlation between love and acts of generosity. In Strive for Truth!, he asked, “Do we give to the people we love, or do we love the people to whom we give?” His answer:
“We usually think it is love which causes giving, because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the person he loves. But there is another side to the argument….A person comes to love the one to whom he gives.”
To foster love, he taught, be generous: Extend what you have in your hands and in your heart toward other human beings. Love will grow along the lines of your giving. “That which a person gives to another is never lost,” he said. “It is an extension of his own being.”
This wisdom applies in all close relationships. The more generous we are, the more we will cultivate love. If we feel so secure in a relationship that our inclination is to slip into being a taker, rather than a giver, we are wise to struggle against this tendency. When we commit ourselves to renew love, when we find more and more ways to give generously to the people with whom we want to experience love, we are more likely to receive love.
To be truly generous, we need to rise above self-interest. The key is to become more aware of the intention behind the giving of a gift. A gift given with the hope of or in an attempt to elicit love is not generosity; it’s a transaction. Love blooms only when we transcend the grasping, frightened, selfish self and share or relinquish something dear to us with no thought of recompense. It is not the thing that is given, but the selflessness in the giving that triggers the love.
The linguistic root of ahava, the Hebrew word for love, literally means “to offer” or “to give.” The act of giving bridges the gap between souls and initiates the process of soul-merger that is the very definition of love. As we develop generosity free of self-interest, love will flow as surely as the rays of the sun carry warmth to our bones.