The Jewish tradition teaches us that "a person's heart is drawn after their actions." In other words, acts of charity and kindness result in a strengthening of one's feelings of love and compassion for other people. This does not mean, God forbid, that compassion is not our natural inclination. The Torah tells us in the very beginning of the book of Genesis (1:31) that "God saw all that was created and behold it was very good." The natural state of the world is one of goodness and love. We are also told in this very first chapter of the Torah that God created the human being in the image of God. Aspects of the Divine are present within each and every one of us. In Deuteronomy 10:18, the Torah teaches us that "God does justice for the orphan and the widow and He loves the stranger by giving (the stranger) bread and clothes." According to the great Jewish philosophers, it is these aspects of God that are being referred to when we are told that we are created in the image of God. In other words, love, compassion and empathy are innate human character traits. In fact, evolutionary biology seems to support this understanding of what it means to be "created in the image of God" as scientists, like Dr. Frans de Waal, have demonstrated.
However, the Jewish tradition also understands that despite the fact that these character traits are innate, that does not mean that they always dominate our behavior. Like any muscle, one needs to "exercise" their compassion or love for other people. But how does one exercise these more abstract or less accessible muscles? It is to this question that we are given the answer: "a person's heart is drawn after their actions."
I wasn't lucky enough to grow up with pets. Dogs and cats were not something that my parents, or myself for that matter, wanted in the house. It wasn't until I married a dog lover that we decided to adopt an abandoned puppy from the Jerusalem SPCA. We were living there at the time. We named her Zohara, which means "radiant light" in Hebrew, as we adopted her a week before Hanukkah. To be completely honest, I didn't want to have anything to do with this rambunctious little animal that was now not only sharing a roof with us but also our bedroom! Yet, after a few months of being "forced" to take her on walks, feed her at all hours of the day and comfort her when she would get scared in the middle of the night, Zohara became the second love of my life. My heart was drawn after my actions.
In Hebrew, the word for love is "ahavah." When the Torah in Leviticus 19:18 taught the world to "love your fellow person as you love yourself," it used the word "ahavah." In the Hebrew language, when one wants to understand the meaning of a word, one must search for the root word. What is the root of the word ahavah? The root of the word ahavah is "hav," which in Hebrew means "to give."
The Torah, and the five books of Moses in particular, speak at length about the importance of love and compassion. Yet, it speaks at even greater length about the importance of following the mitzvot or commandments of the Torah. It would seem that the Torah and the Jewish ethical tradition has always believed that love begins with actions that bespeak the innate love that we are all born with. Happy Passover and Happy Easter!
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Rabbi Avi Poupko is spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavas Achim, Newburyport.