Love is in the air.
With the advent of Valentine's Day, the United States Greeting Card Association estimates that roughly 1,000,000,000 greeting cards filled with declarations of love are sent worldwide – and that number doesn't include the flowers, chocolates, jewelry and gifts that have become part of the rituals of this day on the calendar dedicated to expressing the emotion that Shakespeare called "the language of the soul."
As Jews, we may not be sure whether it's proper for us to join the party. After all, for the longest time the full name of this holiday was “St. Valentine's Day” because of its legendary link with the apocryphal story of one of the earliest Christian saints. Yet academics aren't the only ones who have recognized the dubious historical basis of this connection. Vatican II, the landmark set of reforms adopted by the Catholic Church in 1969, removed Valentine's Day from the Catholic church's calendar, asserting that "though the memorial of St. Valentine is ancient… apart from his name nothing is known… except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on 14 February."
What's left for this day, as proponents of its universal celebration declare, is something that people of all faiths may in good conscience observe: A day in which to acknowledge the power of love to make us fully human.
When I am asked as a rabbi if I think it's a good idea for Jews to celebrate Valentines Day, my standard answer is, "Yes, we should celebrate love… every day of the year."
And as long as one day has been singled out to emphasize the meaning of love, this might be a wonderful moment for us as Jews to remind ourselves of its deeper meaning as a commandment – a meaning that is all too often lost when it's defined by Hallmark.
Love, for at least one of the major Talmudic Sages, represents the ultimate mitzvah. When a non-Jew asked Hillel to "teach the entire Torah on one foot,” i.e. to summarize its essence, his response was basically the idea implicit in "love your neighbor as yourself."
So in a way, loving others it would appear is the summum bonnum of Judaism.
Love of Self
And yet, the way Valentine's Day is observed around the world leaves out one person worthy of love who is almost universally ignored. Granted, it is a fantastically beautiful thing to acknowledge love for another. But a closer look at the biblical verse that makes “love” a commandment points to someone who needs to be loved even before the object of your Valentines Day passion.
The first necessary step to loving others is to love oneself.
The verse in Leviticus (19:18) reads "love your neighbor as yourself." There are two instructions given here, and in very specific order. The verse is commonly used to remind us to love others, but we ignore, at our own peril, the first necessary step that has to be taken in order to accomplish the goal of loving others. Love your neighbor, the Bible teaches, as yourself.
It is one of the most profound psychological truths that the deep-seated hatred manifested by tyrants or criminals is in reality self-hatred turned outward. To be truly human, you must begin with self-acceptance and self-esteem. Only then can you move forward to a feeling of affection for others as well.
The Chasidic Rabbi of Kotzk was right when he witnessed a man beating another and said to his disciples, "See how even while performing an evil act, this Jew fulfills the words of the holy Bible. He demonstrates that he loves his neighbor as much as he loves himself. We can only pray that he eventually comes to love himself, so that he may alter the way he treats others."
Barbara De Angelis, an American researcher on relationships and personal growth, put it well in saying that, "If you aren't good at loving yourself you'll have a difficult time loving anyone, since you'll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren't even giving to yourself."
The flip side of this, of course, is also true: If you don't how to love yourself, how can you expect anyone else to love you?
This is not to suggest a self-love that's narcissistic, but rather the kind of self-love made possible by self-respect. The kind of self-love exemplified by the remarkable story of Gil Meche, the subject of a front-page headline in the New York Times:.
"Pitcher Spurns $12 Million to Keep Self Respect"
Gil Meche is a 32-year-old Major League pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. His contract called for $12 million for the coming baseball season. Major league contracts are guaranteed; no matter how well or poorly someone plays, or even if he can't play at all due to injuries, he gets paid in full. Meche has a chronically aching shoulder that prevents him from pitching. All he would need to do to collect his salary is to report for spring training. But instead, Meche announced his retirement last week, which means he will not be paid at all.
"When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it," Meche explained. "Once I started to realize I wasn't earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn't feel like I deserved it. I didn't want to have those feelings again."
I don't want to take what I don't deserve.
To Gil Meche, more important than money was the ability to look himself in the mirror and say, "I know I am true to my values, my dignity and my self-respect. I don't want to take what I don't deserve." And with that he demonstrated something we all could learn as the necessary prerequisite for true love.
Indeed, in many areas of life we are confronted with choices in which self-respect appears to be at odds with the seeming need for success. The Faustian bargain seduces us to sell our souls. Only those who are smart enough to choose love, are strong enough to make the right decision.
It isn't egotistical to make sure that you are likable in your own eyes. According to the Torah, it's a first step we all have to take before we proceed on the journey of love of others that will grant us the greatest fulfillment.
So here's my suggestion for Valentine's Day and as all the other 364 days of the year. No, you needn’t send yourself a Hallmark card declaring your love. But you might want to take a moment to live in a way that earns your deepest respect and admiration.
When you truly reach that place, you can then love others as yourself. In turn, they will be your true valentines, loving you for who you are with the kind of love that transcends momentary passion and one pithy phrase.