I had a really strange experience in my car today.
Not exactly a revelation or an “aha” moment, but strange nonetheless. Enjoying the smooth ride and dependability of my Subaru Forester, I thought to myself, “I love this car.”
It occurred to me at that moment that not too long ago, in shul, I was declaring my love for God. I spent the rest of the ride feeling distinctly uncomfortable. How could I use the same verb in such drastically different situations?
Has the word love gone the way of the word great? Awesome? When a really good basketball player (even one who beats his wife) is called a hero, when deserting our allies is equated with national security, can any words be trusted?
Still, the use of the word love troubled me more than usual.
I tried to identify situations in which the word is appropriate. We love our children and grandchildren, but there are reasons for that (not to mention that it’s a cultural expectation and probably leads to the perpetuation of the species).
When you nurture someone, as we did our kids, you take a special interest in them, in their well-being, in their success. Is that love? Somehow, this made me think of Jonah, and God’s attempt — by destroying the shade tree Jonah had grown to “love” — to make the prophet empathetic. God wasn’t really asking much. Jonah didn’t have to love the Ninehvites. He just had to celebrate their repentance and survival.
But we don’t nurture God. We don’t get to build up a relationship with the Divine by taking care of God. Maybe in Temple times the sweet smells and burnt offerings were a kind of caretaking, but in today’s religious landscape, that element is missing. God may listen to our prayers, but God’s other senses are not stimulated (as far as we know).
We love our spouses, or partners, because — in the immortal words of Tom Cruise in “Jerry McGuire” — they complete us. They help provide something we need, enjoy, or even lack. A bit self-centered perhaps, but another way to look at love.
Does God complete us? That depends on what we take from God. And if the relationship is about taking rather than giving, can that truly foster love? More songs are written about love than about anything else, yet it’s hard to find one that applies to our relationship with God. More fitting would be songs about dependence, or need.
Still driving, no doubt muttering to myself, I decided that rather than the word love, I could, with no hesitation, say that I value God. I value the sense that something exists beyond ourselves that calls out to our better nature. That there are moral absolutes. That good deeds are inherently better than bad ones. If God embodies all that, it certainly needs to be appreciated, valued, and celebrated in prayer.
So we can love our children and our partners and even our cars, but we know that the world does not stand or fall on their merits (despite the seeming perfection of our progeny). What it does rest on is the belief that Isaiah was right: Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor beat sackcloth and ashes any date. If recognizing the value of these teachings does not fit the popular conception of love, then we may need to find another word.
Lois Goldrich of Fair Lawn is a former editor and mainstay reporter at the Jewish Standard.