We live in a “me-first” culture. Our needs, our wants, our expectations are our top priorities, and we demonstrate our commitment to them all the time. If you suspect that you focus on yourself too much, you might not be surprised to learn that the Torah tells us that serving others, such as the widow, the orphan and the stranger is a top priority. But not for the reasons you might think!
In fact, G-d wants us to offer love to others for many reasons. To understand them, we have to understand what motivates us to form and grow relationships in the first place:
We rely on Nature, Nurture and Choices. Our tribal (Nurture) relationships are easy, because they are built on commonality. Our Nature (or DNA/family) relationships are also relatively easy because we are born into them. But the Choices we make in our relationships can be challenges: marriages, for example, are built on differences; to be successful, they require us to wholeheartedly engage with our spouse, to share our love with them, to bridge the divide between people who are inherently different both in nature (sex) and nurture (different backgrounds).
Why should we work to love people who are different – to love people whom we might not naturally gravitate toward? Because relationships are hard. And developing relationships with people in difficult life situations is especially hard, because to be genuine and helpful to them, we must empathize with them.
For example, G-d directs us to love the widow, orphan and stranger. If you’ve ever been around a widow, you may have realized how difficult it is, even if you are not a widow. Can you imagine how devastated you would feel if you lost your spouse? How would you relate to other people as a widowed person? What would it be like to be alone, managing on your own?
Or think of the orphan: if you are not an orphan, how would you feel about being completely alone in the world, with no parents to guide, comfort and love you? And we probably all know, from some time in our lives, what it’s like to be the stranger: to be somewhere where you know no one, are truly on your own, and realize how uncomfortable and disorienting it might be to become acquainted with others.
In order to reach out to the widow, orphan or stranger to love them and comfort them, you must stretch beyond your own comfort zone. You need to sense what they are feeling and experiencing in their life situations. You must balance reaching out without discounting their need to get their bearings and to heal from their loneliness. And you are called to offer them the seeds of a loving relationship, above all else.
Taking these steps is very hard. And that is precisely the reason that G-d demands that we take them. In reaching out, we must leave our cocoon of predictability and ease. We are called to make ourselves vulnerable and touch the lives of others who likely feel even more vulnerable than we do. But that vulnerability is the very emotional state that we share with others. Done right, it doesn’t separate us, it brings us together. It is the place where we meet and recognize each other. Paradoxically, then, stretching ourselves is not only hard, but it is rewarding, and perhaps most importantly, it forces us to grow.
We must also be willing to build a unique and loving connection with others, according to where they are in their journey. It is like learning an intricate dance for which the steps are not taught, but the dancers work it out between themselves, learning as they go. It can be a risky business—will the other person be tentative and shy, keeping you at a distance, or will that person be bold, crushing your toes in his enthusiastic efforts?
So G-d calls us to offer love not only to benefit those who are alone, but because we grow and gain so very much ourselves. In bridging the gap between ourselves and others, we discover that we are stronger and more resilient than we might have believed. The more we reach out to others and learn to love them, the more we discover that G-d lives in the midst of those relationships, too. And so our love of G-d deepens as well.
Not only are we called to love those who need us in order for us to grow, but these efforts also lead us on the path of the Torah.
Outside of orthodox Judaism, most people do not realize that the Torah itself does not give us specific instructions on commandments – only very vague guidelines. I would suggest two reasons why the Torah is not explicit about how we are supposed to perform commandments: (1) we are supposed to think about, learn, and engage in what G-d wants from us; and (2) each person has, and must find or create his or her own path to holiness. No two persons’ paths will be identical. The path is intimately tied to each person’s unique connection to G-d along that path.
The next time you are faced with a difficult relationship, you might ask yourself: am I better off not getting involved with this person, extricating myself from the relationship?
Or can I take the risk of making myself vulnerable, investing in others even (and especially) when those investments are costly?