Have you ever wondered what the word love really means?
In Hebrew, the word we translate love is a•ha•VAH (אהבה). Interestingly, it is both a verb and a noun, exactly like in English. The root of the word is a-HAV (אהב), which means give.
In most of the English-speaking world, love is thought to be an intense longing for another person, a feeling that is crucial to our well-being. But that only begins to scratch the surface of what ahavah truly means.
Jewish people in the past regarded love as something you did, not as a feeling. In the most sacred prayer, foundational to Judaism, we are commanded to love God. It reads (in English): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4.
To pronounce it in Hebrew, you would say: Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad.
The prayer continues by saying: “and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your might.”
Now, God is not so capricious as to command us to have a feeling. We really have not much control over our feelings, but we have nearly total control over our actions.
That’s when ahavah ceases to be a noun
and becomes a verb.
A verb is an action word, it implies activity. So when we are commanded to love, we are not commanded to feel. That’s a different verb.
The Jews see ahavah as a form of giving. We tend to think that we give because we love. But in essence, it’s the opposite. We love because we give. We love our children because we give to them. We give them life, food, clothing, education, gifts, etc. We shower gifts on those we love, but we tend to think that we do it because we love them.
The Jewish perspective is different. To foster love, according to the late Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, we must be generous. If we extend what we have in our hands and our hearts, love will grow. He explains that giving to another human being is an extension of ourselves. Our soul (Hebrew NE•fish) becomes knit with one another. David and Jonathan loved each other, and their hearts were knit together.
1 Samuel 18:1 says “As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”
Giving ourselves to another creates a bond that in the spiritual is a real thing. The proof of that is the pain we feel when our soul is torn from another when relationships split up. We “become one flesh” when we marry. Divorce or the death of a spouse renders the soul in the most intense pain you can endure.
To love, we must first be generous. To be truly generous, we need to give without self-interest. If we give expecting anything in return (including love), it is a transaction. Yet when we transcend the selfish self and share or give something that is dear to us without any thought of recompense, it triggers love. It doesn’t matter what we are giving—it is the selflessness in giving that elicits a love response.
To give ahavah (which means give in its root form), we bridge the gap between souls and start the process of soul-merger.