Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)
וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃
Isaac loved Esau *כי צידו לפיו and Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25.28)
Commentaries have long noted that it is in the story of Rebekah and Isaac that we first see the word ahavah, love, used in the Torah. Isaac is described as loving Rebekah in the context of their marriage:
וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ
[Isaac] loved [Rebekah] and thus found consolation after [the death of] his mother.
We often reflect upon the life of Isaac in the passive, and pathetic, mode: the son of Abraham, who was nearly slaughtered in the violence engendered by his father’s vision. Yet the Torah has more to tell us about this person who is the first to be described as loving.
Where does love come from? What makes us able to love, and what makes us feel that we cannot? To ask these questions of ourselves we must first ask the eternal question of song and story: what is love? The answer, it turns out, depends on the culture. In Jewish tradition, love is not an emotion, caused by something outside of us, and affecting us. Love is, rather, a deliberate act of the intellect.
You shall love HaShem your god with all you have – this verse from the first paragraph of the Shema is not a statement of emotional imperative. It is asking for your loyalty; it is summoning you to be All In on your path of belief and action.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself – again, this is not a command about emotion, which is an unknown definition of the term for ancient Israelites. Judaism understands this mitzvah of the Torah to compel us to make sure that whatever we want for our own lives, we make sure is available to those with whom we share our lives and communities.
Where does this lead us in our attempt to understand the nature of Isaac’s love? First, it is a depiction of a person whose response to unimaginable trauma is to refuse to let it define their life. Isaac is able to love; personally, to act in line with his loyalty, and second, as in Hillel’s famous formulation, to not do to someone else that which was done to him.
Anger is sometimes justified as a way to flush out the emotions from our system. But no one should dwell there. Love is what builds: family, community, and an integrated sense of self.
Isaac shows us that love does not indicate passivity. Love, in the Jewish sense of the term, fills you with power, not weakness; with a sense of purpose, not hopelessness. It is stronger than hate when it is a conscious choice which leads the heart toward generosity and openness. And in these difficult times, it may not save the day, as one more popular slogan puts it, but this choice will save the day – and our lives – from meaningless.
*for the grammar and critical edition geeks: this is a variant reading preserved in ancient manuscripts which makes more sense, and indicates that Esau brought his father game to eat.