The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once said:
I came into the world to show another way, to cultivate love of God, of Israel, and of the Torah, and there is no need for fasting and mortification.”
Now don’t get too excited. I do not think he was saying we should not fast on Yom Kippur. But he is suggesting that the cultivation of our ability to love is the most important thing we can do. How do we cultivate love?
Today’s Torah reading does not offer much guidance. It describes the ritual that Aaron, the High Priest, performed on behalf of the Israelites on Yom Kippur. It goes into all of the technical details of washing, dressing, offering sacrifices, and even sending a goat off into the wilderness. All of this so that the Tabernacle could be purified of the sins that had accumulated over the course of the year.
The High Priest had a crucial role to play, and only he could play it. In describing the ritual, the Torah speaks matter-of-factly. We gain no insight into the internal emotional state of the High Priest as he performs the rituals. But it must have been a terrifying and exhilarating experience. I imagine that many High Priests might have been motivated by their love for the Jewish people.
The single hint of what Aaron could have been feeling appears in the opening words of the reading. “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.” (Lev. 16:1) The language is cold and factual, but it draws our memories back to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, six chapters earlier.
Is this a detail that we need? After all, it does not add anything to the procedures. Perhaps, as our Mahzor suggests, it is a warning to remind the High Priest of what is at stake if he is not careful to perform the ritual exactly as prescribed.
Or maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that the individual who performs this ritual on our behalf bears his own burdens and struggles. “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” brings us back in time to the moment and its aftermath when Nadav and Avihu were inexplicably struck down.
Moses steps forward to take charge. Explaining the tragedy, he comes off as something of a “know it all.” His grieving brother’s response? Vayidom Aharon. “Aaron was silent.”
Moses instructs a couple of cousins to remove the bodies. He tells Aaron and his sons that, due to their position, they are not permitted to engage in public mourning. He instructs them to continue the sacred offerings, as if nothing has happened, reviewing in detail all of the procedures. Then, when Moses sees Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, doing something which he thinks is improper, he scolds them. That is a step too far. Aaron ends his silence, pushing back against his brother’s cold, by-the-book attitude.
Aaron needs something from his brother in that moment, and he does not get it. Moses shows no compassion, no acknowledgement that Aaron has just experienced the worst loss a parent can suffer. Surely Moses loves his brother, but he fails to look beyond the garments of the High Priest to the suffering person underneath. What would have comforted Aaron? What would have reassured him that his brother, his family, and indeed the Israelite nation, loved him?
We do not know. The Torah is silent.
As human beings, we are social creatures. Included in our basic core requirements, in addition to food, clothing, and water, is our need to be loved. And not only romantic love, but the love between parents and children, siblings, other relatives, friends, and even God.
When a person knows that he or she is loved and accepted unconditionally, that person is better able to return love, feels more settled, and is more willing to take risks with the knowledge that love is not on the line. And when that person suffers a loss, as Aaron did, he is able to move through the stages of grieving with more resilience.
One of the unconscious mistakes that most of us make is assuming that we know what other people need from us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not necessarily the best advice, as each of us wants different things.
Centuries after Aaron performed the ritual in the Tabernacle, the High Priest would conduct a similarly intricate series of rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem. As in earlier times, the purpose was to bring about atonement on behalf of the Jewish people. Over the course of the year, the people’s sins accumulated, polluting the sanctuary. God’s Presence could no longer remain in a polluted sanctuary. The atonement rituals served as a spiritual cleansing, enabling God’s Presence to return.
The Talmudic Tractate, Yoma, goes into great detail about the rituals of Yom Kippur. In the fifth chapter, it describes the incense offering. (Yoma 5:1) The High Priest places the specially formulated incense on hot coals in a metal pan so that the entire chamber of the Holy of Holies fills with smoke. He then exits the Holy of Holies, walking backwards. When he reaches the outer chamber, the High Priest pauses to recite a short prayer. The Mishnah emphasizes that the High Priest would not pray for too long, so as not to alarm the people who are waiting for him outside.
It is known that a priest who alters the recipe for the incense, or who is not himself fit, can be struck dead on the spot while in the Holy of Holies. If such were to occur, the regular priests waiting outside would have a problem, as none of them are permitted to enter the sacred precincts while the High Priest is in the Holy of Holies. Maimonides reports that many Second Temple priests perished while conducting the Yom Kippur ritual .
After completing his duties and emerging safely from the Holy of Holies, the High Priest throws a big feast for his loved ones to express his gratitude that no tragedy has befallen him. (Yoma 7:4)
The Talmud (Yoma 53b) relates a particular incident that occurs one year. A certain High Priest is inside the Holy of Holies, reciting his prayer after the incense offering, but he is not coming out. His fellow priests are worried. Maybe he needs help? Maybe he fainted? Maybe he has been struck dead by a bolt of lightning!?
After speculating on the increasingly gruesome possibilities, they finally agree to enter.
Just at that moment, the High Priest emerges, triumphant.
“Why did you take so long to pray?” they ask him.
“What are you so worried about?” he responds. “After all, I was praying for you and for the Temple to not be destroyed!”
Angry, they respond, “Well, don’t make a habit out if it. You know what the law says; ‘He would not extend his prayer, so as not to alarm the Jewish people.'”
Clearly, there is a failure of communication. The High Priest is convinced that he is doing the right thing for the people. He loves them. He is praying for their survival, and for the survival of the Holy Temple. “Everything I did, I did for you,” he seems to be saying. What could be wrong with that?
He has miscalculated. In fact, his prayer is somewhat self-serving. He prays for the people, and for the temple to not be destroyed. He, of course, has a personal interest in the continued functioning of the Temple. He assumes that everyone else wants the same.
It turns out, the people want something different. “But what you did for us is not what we wanted you to do for us.”
What do they want? He is their beloved High Priest, their religious leader. They are worried about him. They want his presence, not his prayers. They are looking for a more intimate relationship than what he has offered them. He does not seem to understand their needs – much as Moses fails to understand Aaron’s needs in his moment of loss.
This is one of the major stumbling blocks in relationships. We do not pay the right kind of attention to what the people we love need. Different people need to be loved in different ways.
Let’s each think for a moment about someone who loves us, either now or in the past. It could be or have been a partner, a parent or child, a relative, or a friend. Let’s ask, “How do I know that this person loves or loved me?”
The marriage and family counselor Gary Chapman wrote a well-known book called The 5 Love Languages which he has subsequently expanded into a small empire. (I am indebted to Rabbi Laurie Matzkin for making this connection.) His basic premise is that there are five essential ways of communicating love of all kinds. Every person has a primary emotional language that determines how they best receive love.
Chapman argues that by knowing which is our own primary love language, and which is the primary love language of our partner, child, parent, or friend, we will be able to both give and receive love in a fuller way, and will have deeper, more fulfilling and compatible relationships.
If we are having difficulties in a relationship, it may very well be the case that the two individuals are not speaking one another’s love language.
The five love languages are, in no particular order: “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” and “Physical Touch.” I will briefly summarize each of them.
Someone who responds best to “Words of Affirmation” likes to receive unsolicited compliments and kind words. Saying “I love you,” sincerely of course, leave this person feeling great. Conversely, this person takes insults very hard.
A person whose primary language is “Quality Time” appreciates nothing more than full, undivided attention. Put the cell phone on mute, turn off the TV and be present with this person for focused conversations or shared activities.
Some people blossom by “Receiving Gifts” that reflect care and thoughtfulness. Don’t mistake this for greed. A meaningful gift could be a flower plucked from the garden. Marking birthdays and anniversaries with a gift are important for those who speak this language.
Those whose primary love language is “Acts of Service” appreciates it most when things are done for them. Washing the dishes, performing other household chores, or relieving a burden are received as expressions of love. On the other hand, laziness and not following through communicate to this person that he or she does not matter.
Finally, some people communicate love through “Physical Touch.” Hugs, a pat on the back, holding hands, or simply sitting close to another person are received as acts of love. When a child who is feeling bad comes over to sit in a parent’s lap and nuzzles their neck, it is probably a good indication that “Physical Touch” is that child’s primary love language. When a person who speaks this language does not experience physical contact, it can be lonely and insecure.
We all speak each of these languages, but for most of us, there is one that is dominant.
So… which do you think is your primary love language? Think back to how you answered the question about how you knew you were loved. “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” or “Physical Touch.”
Chapman identifies three questions to help us figure it out.
1. How do I typically express my affection for other people? Our natural inclination is to express love in the way that we hope to receive it. That is why the High Priest expresses his love for Israel by praying that they and the Temple will not be destroyed. In Chapman’s language, we might say that the High Priest’s language is “Acts of Service.”
2. What do I most complain about to my loved ones? This could indicate that I am feeling abused in my primary love language. The people complain to the High Priest that he was not there with them. Their primary love language is “Quality Time.”
3. What am I most likely to ask for from my loved ones? The thing that we most often request from our friend, partner, or family member is likely connected to the thing that would most likely make us feel loved. A spouse who insists that her partner mark her birthday with some sort of present or special activity speaks the language of “Giving Gifts.”
Knowing this about ourselves, and about each other, can make a tremendous difference in our relationships. I may hate to do the dishes… with a passion. But if I know that my spouse’s love language is “Acts of Service,” then by doing the dishes, I am actually saying “I love you” to her. It even makes me feel differently about doing the dishes. And my partner feels loved.
When we love another person, we want to make that person happy. We want that person to feel secure, and to know that our love for them is unconditional. Knowing which language to speak is key.
Can we apply this paradigm to God? What is God’s primary love language?
Ahavah, the Hebrew word for love, means something different in the Torah than the word love means to us today. The concept of ahavah is wrapped up in covenant. In the Shema, we recite V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol levavekha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha. “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.”
The Torah is not talking about an emotional feeling. It is talking about actions. How do we express our love for God? Through actions. By teaching our children, reciting words of Torah at home and on the road, at night and by day. By putting up mezuzot on our doorposts and wrapping tefillin on our arms and our heads. These are concrete deeds which express our relationship as individuals and as a people to God.
So we might say that God speaks the language of “Acts of Service.” Through our actions, through performance of mitzvot, we express our love for God.
God has a different way of expressing love for us. The language is all over our prayers. How do we know that God loves us? “Gift Giving.” In the morning service, we recite Ahavah rabah ahavtanu. “You loved us with a tremendous love.” How? Through the gift of Torah.
In the Torah’s covenantal language, God gives us the Promised Land, along with peace, security, and prosperity. But is this all we want? After all, the rabbis insist that we should strive to serve God not for a reward, but for God’s own sake.
In a more spiritual sense, what we long for is “Quality Time.” In today’s Amidah, we say vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b’ahavah… “You have given us in love, Adonai our God, this Shabbat day for holiness and rest, and this Yom Kippur for pardon, forgiveness and atonement…” The ability to experience a sense of holiness in time comes through the weekly gift of Shabbat, as well as the annual cycle of holidays, each of which offers a unique opportunity to relate to God.
In Biblical and Temple times, the Yom Kippur ritual is what enabled God’s Presence to remain or return into the people’s midst. With the knowledge that God was with them, the nation felt safe and protected.
The rituals of the Temple have been replaced by synagogue worship and personal teshuvah. It is now we, individually, who long to feel the Presence of God in our lives.
As the 20th century theologian Martin Buber describes using the language of I-Thou, it is when we can fully encounter another person with our entire being that we experience God. I would suggest that this can only happen when we are feeling loved, and are able to express love to someone else in the language that they understand.
In this new year, to experience God more fully, let’s strive to experience each other more fully.
Let’s figure out our own love language. And them, let’s pay attention to our partners, parents, children, and friends to learn how to better express our feelings to them in the language that they will understand.
May we be sealed in the book of life for a year filled with the cultivation of love, both expressed and received, for God, for Torah, and for each other.