by Marc Gafni
Recently, I was at a New York publishing house presenting a book proposal. Half a dozen professionals were seated around a great oak table looking very official, very sharp, literary, and daunting. I fled to the bathroom for a moment’s breath before I went “on.” Glancing in the mirror on my way out, I was caught by a sticker plastered audaciously across the mirror. It read, “You are beautiful.” The statement, hovering there above my reflection, gave me such a sense of elation that when I got back to the stuffy conference room I took off my shoes and started walking across that great oak table… just because it was what the beautiful in me wanted to do.
The most important thing we can ever tell someone else is “You are beautiful.”
According to the Kabbalistic masters, that is what loving means – to see the beauty in the person next door and to love him for the richness of that vision.
In biblical understanding we are commanded to love everyone.
Though it may seem cliché, this sentence actually holds two startling ideas within its simplicity.
One – how is it possible to ‘command’ love? We can’t force ourselves to feel an emotion!
And two – even if it is possible to artificially induce emotion, how can we be commanded to love everyone? Isn’t love the kind of thing you put on reserve for a precious few?
The biblical answer, in a close reading, is that love is not an emotion; it is rather a perception. The emotion of love emerges out of the perception, and not vice versa.
There are two critical components of the Jewish definition of loving. To love means to perceive the infinite specialness in another. To love is to reveal the divine in the other. This is the intent of the Kabbalistic idiom, “The Bride and Groom are revealers of the Divine (Shechina) in the world.” In my understanding this idiom means that the bride and groom reveal the divine – in each other. This happens through acts of focusing (kavannah); being able to see in the other what no one else can see.
The second component of the definition is that I identify another with their infinite specialness. “Yes, he has faults, but who he really is – is the amazingly beautiful human being that I see in him!” To hate is to hold in contempt is to identify a person with their imperfection. To love is to identify the essence of the same person with their infinite beauty.
Spiritual tradition reminds us of what we often forget in the doldrums and tensions of the day to day. That is – that everyone is beautiful – and furthermore, that everyone is uniquely beautiful. Every human being on the face of the planet holds in their essence an utterly unique reflection of the infinite beauty of the image of God. We can indeed ‘love everyone’ by perceiving this light.
Sometimes we see in another what they cannot yet see themselves. In the film “Jerry Maguire,” Jerry’s girlfriend captured this idea well when she said, “I love him for the man he wants to be. I love him for the man he almost is.” Holy wisdom is sometimes found in the most unlikely places. And somehow, through being loved, we begin to be who we want to be, who we really are. To love is to embrace an other not only as a human being but as a human becoming.
Our first lovers in this world are our parents. A parent’s obligation to a child is, above all, love. Love is not an abstract emotion with which parents are automatically endowed upon the child’s birth. Love is about the work of revealing the infinite specialness and beauty of the child. The audience for this revelation however, is not, as is commonly assumed, the world. The father who carries around baby pictures to show to anyone who will look, is sweet, but not yet engaged in real parenting. Real parenting is realizing that the one who needs to see the picture most is the child herself. The sacred task of the parent is to reveal unique beauty of the child to the child. Not to flash her picture to the world, declaring her beauty in broad boasting statements. Rather, to reflect her gorgeousness back to her in a loving gaze or quiet words of confirmation.
The parent’s ultimate mission is that the child know — beyond a shadow of a doubt – that she is infinitely special, her ray of light is unique and precious to the planet. The parent needs to be a prism which refracts to the child the infinite love that God feels for her.
The Zohar teaches us that ‘Mitzvah’ (commandment) is the symbol of God’s overpowering love for us. In the Zohar, the God of Mitzvah is both our parent and lover. For Mitzvah is about details…and only the lover is concerned with the small stuff. Love is in the details.
Love is not blind it is a magnifying glass.
Yet we must decide – it is a decision – that the reflecting mirror of a mate or a parent’s love should not be a magnifying glass that highlights our faults, but rather a magnifying glass that enlarges our elegance, that enhances our beauty.
Parents and lovers can’t and don’t need to make us beautiful – but they can and must remind us that we already are. And in so reminding, move us, through the ultimately motivating power of love, to express our beauty in our every step – in our every second of the day. To give us the confidence to walk on tables, to pass on the love, to talk to God, to be ourselves…
In the end love is about friendship.
Friends in the biblical tradition are the greatest lovers. Love your friend as yourself is the primary biblical idea. All other human love is derivative from these five words. Parents, spouses, family, are all challenged by the Bible to friendship.
What is a friend?
In Chassidic mysticism they said it like this:
“There are three kinds of friends in the world.
An ordinary friend who sees you as you appear to be.
An extra-ordinary friend sees you for what you can be.
But in the presence of the highest friend – you already are.”
I remember once going to a summer camp to give a talk in one of the wealthiest enclaves of Long Island. The kids in the camp were between ages 5 and 12. After my official talk I had some extra time so I asked if I could perhaps have a casual talk to the kids alone. The camp director, being more creative and flexible than most – on the spot cancelled that afternoons activity and brought the kids together for a ‘kumzits,’ a chat/singing session with the Rabbi. I sang with them, horsed around – thought I was outrageously funny – but wasn’t getting the kind of gut response I wanted. Laughter, participation – yes…but real presence – soul sharing – wasn’t happening. Out of nowhere, I asked them, “When was the last time someone told you that you were beautiful?” Silence. “We need a first volunteer…” I pushed them.
So one brave nine-year-old gets up and with a tremble of hesitation says, “My mother told me on Saturday that I was the ugliest little girl she knew.” Silence – this time the silence was worlds sadder, but somehow more real. Then a little boy – looking not more than ten – raised his hand and, in his own words, said, “My mother was in the holocaust. And she says that if she would have known that I would be her son, she wouldn’t have worked so hard to survive.”
And then the stories came tumbling out. Of parents, so many parents, who weren’t lovers, who didn’t know how beautiful their children were. Stories of so many parents who broke the commandment to love.
So right now, before you do anything else, before you go on to the next article, before you turn on the tv…turn to your child, call up your friend, call out to your lover, and tell them just how beautiful they are.
Like that mirror in the bathroom, let us reflect back to everyone who looks at us, “You are beautiful.”
May you be well,