Three times the Torah commands us to love: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19), “You shall love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “You shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Nowhere are we commanded to love our parents, our siblings, our children or even our spouse.
Perhaps families are too fragile, and the emotions of love too fleeting, to be the object of a commandment. Perhaps family is too important to be subjected to the vicissitudes of love. And perhaps, when God gave us the Torah, God realized that we cannot command feelings. We can only command actions, certain duties toward our family.
We have specific, Torah-given responsibilities toward our families. First, we are commanded to honor our parents. This commandment is spelled out in the Ten Commandments, and rabbinic law describes this commandment in some detail. We must give parents the respect due their position, even if they were not very good parents and are not necessarily deserving of this honor. We must also be sure they are taken care of in their old age. (The only possible exception is abusive parents, an area treated in great detail by Jewish law.) We honor our parents because, by doing so, we show the importance of the chain of generations. Human redemption takes place only over the course of generations. (L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, as our prayer book teaches over and over.)
We are commanded to be our brother’s, and for that matter, our sister’s keeper. We must take care of our siblings. The Torah teaches that if our brother grows poor and must become an indentured servant to pay off a debt, his brother must redeem him. Our obligations grow out of our obligations to honor parents. As I tell every bar and bat mitzvah, “You honor your parents by taking care of your brothers and sisters.”
Caring for siblings becomes the paradigm for taking care of all our fellow human beings. We learn kindness toward others by how we care for our own siblings growing up. In a sense, every human being is our brother or sister. As the Bible teaches, “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10).
We are commanded to teach our children. In fact, the Hebrew words for teaching (Torah), teacher (morah), and parents (horim), all come from the same root. Animals are born knowing by instinct most of what they need to survive. Humans must be taught from the youngest age. The human period of childhood and adolescence is one of the longest in the entire animal kingdom. Part of the reason is that we humans have so much we must be taught. Perhaps most important, we humans must be taught to make moral decisions, to know the difference between right and wrong.
The Torah commands us to marry, not necessarily to fall in love and then marry. In fact, one of the strongest marriages in the Torah was between the patriarch Isaac and matriarch Rebecca. Yet the Torah goes out of the way to show how it was an arranged marriage; the couple did not fall in love until they were married. The Talmud defines a whole series of mutual obligations between a husband and wife. Many of these grew in a more gender-defined age, with a husband as breadwinner and a wife as homemaker. Nonetheless, if every person would approach their marriage with the question, “What should I do for my spouse?” we can build stronger marriages. Perhaps if young people spent more time looking for the right kind of spouse and less time worrying about falling madly in love, we could build stronger marriages.
Family is about obligation. We have obligations toward our families of origin, our parents and our siblings. We have obligations toward the families we create, our spouse and our children. These obligations remain, whether we feel the emotional draws of love or not. One of the great pieces of wisdom is that love grows out of actions.
Rabbi Michael Gold is the author of “The Kabbalah of Love” (BookSurge, 2008), from which this column is adapted. He is online at www.rabbigold.com.