In the Jewish tradition, love is considered to be more of an action than an emotion. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote:
The Bible spoke of the commandment to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). However, in Talmudic literature, emphasis was placed not only upon sentiment, but upon action, which is motivated by sentiment. The Hoshen Mishpat, the Jewish code of civil law, analyzes not human emotions but actual human relations. The problem of Hoshen Mishpat is not what one feels toward the other, but how he acts toward him (Family Redeemed, p. 40).
British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the same point in explaining the importance of performing acts of loving kindness. He notes that hesed usually means “kindness,” but it may also be translated as “love” expressed through deed, in a covenantal bond. Through this covenant, there is mutual respect for the integrity and freedom of the other in acts of hesed, which do have a deep emotional component:
Hessed exists only in virtue of emotion, empathy, and sympathy, feeling-with and feeling-for. We act with kindness because we know what it feels like to be in need of kindness… Societies are only human and humanizing when they are a community of communities built on face-to-face encounters – covenantal relationships.
Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, agreeing with Rabbi Sacks, wrote that the image of a “face” is a key to what makes us human: “Society is faceless; hesed is a relationship of face to face. The Pentateuch repeatedly emphasizes that we cannot see G-d face to face. It follows that we can only see G-d in the face of another” (To Heal a Fractured World, page 45-55).
Of course, we see the face of another most in those closest to us, our families. There is a powerful story about the Kapishnitzer Rebbe about the importance of taking care of family. A prominent businessman from the community who worked in Manhattan asked to see the Rebbe about an opportunity to give tzedakah. He stressed that he would go to the Rebbe in Brooklyn to discuss the matter. Instead, the Rebbe said that he would go to the man’s office, for he had an important message to deliver.
When he arrived, the man barred any interruption, cutting off all phone calls and leaving customers waiting. He invited the Rebbe into his office. There, the Rebbe detailed the dire financial situa¬tion of a family with many children. The breadwin¬ner had lost his job, his health was suffering, and financial pressures were crushing the family's spirits. Something needed to be done immediately. The businessman immediately offered to write out a $1,000 check for the unfortunate man, but wondered why the Rebbe had to deliver the message in person. The story concludes, “Pen poised above his checkbook, the man asked, ’For whom is the check?’ The Rebbe stared at the floor for a few long moments, then answered, ’For your brother.’”
Tzedakah does not, of course, have to be in the form of money. The Steipler, Rav Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, who endured abject poverty, harassment in the Russian army because he insisted on observing his religion, and who eventually went deaf, was extraordinary for his combination of wisdom and common sense, was widely sought after for advice. A young man once visited the Steipler Rav and complained bitterly, “I don't know which way to turn. My home is in constant chaos. I come home every Friday afternoon before Shabbos and the dishes are still in the sink, there are diapers everywhere, and the floor is not even swept. My wife is just not getting things done. I can't live like this anymore.” The Steipler Rav looked at the young man with incredulity and said, “You don't know what to turn? I'll tell you. Turn to the nearest closet and take out a broom. Has it occurred to you that you can help!"
There is plenty of work to do in the broader Jewish community and around the world, but we should be sure that in the process of doing that holy work we never forget the needs of our family. My great teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss likes to tell a story about how he was unable to pick his visiting parents up at the airport. He kept saying, “I love you. I just can’t pick you up at the airport.” His parents finally replied: “Avrami, stop loving us so much and just pick us up at the airport.” There is great value to love as an emotion, but Judaism reminds us that that love is ultimately manifest in action, not feeling.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."