Photo Credit: Courtesy
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z"l

Not only is Judaism a religion of love. It was also the first civilization to place love at the center of the moral life. C. S. Lewis and others pointed out that all great civilizations contain something like the golden rule – Act toward others as you would wish them to act toward you, or, in Hillel’s formulation: Don’t do to others what you would hate them to do to you (Shabbat 31a).

But Judaism is also about justice. Albert Einstein in The World As I See It spoke about the “almost fanatical love of justice” that made him thank his lucky stars that he was born a Jew. The only place in the Torah to explain why Abraham was chosen to be the founder of a new faith states, “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19). So why this combination of justice and love? Why is love alone not enough?


Our parsha contains a gripping passage of only a few words that gives us the answer. Recall the background: Jacob, fleeing home, is taking refuge with his uncle Laban. He falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, and works for seven years so that he can marry her. A deception is practiced on him, and when he wakes up the morning after their wedding night, he discovers that he has married Rachel’s elder sister Leah. Livid, he confronts Laban. Laban replies: “It is not done in our place to marry the younger before the elder”(Gen. 29:26). He tells Jacob he can marry Rachel as well, in return for another seven years of work.

We then read, or rather hear, a series of very poignant words. To understand their impact, we have to recall that in ancient times until the invention of printing there were few books. Until then most people heard the Torah in the synagogue. The phrase Keriat ha-Torah really means, not reading the Torah but proclaiming it, making it a public declaration.

There is a fundamental difference between reading and hearing in the way we process information. When reading, we can see the entire text at one time. Hearing, we hear only one word at a time, and we do not know in advance how a sentence or paragraph will end. Some of the most powerful literary effects in an oral culture occur when the opening words of a sentence lead us to expect one ending and instead we encounter another.

These are the poignant words we hear: “And he [Jacob] loved also Rachel (Gen. 29:30).

This is what we expected and hoped for. Jacob now has two wives, sisters, something that will be forbidden in later Jewish law. It is a situation fraught with tension. But our first impression is that all will be well. He loves them both.

That expectation is dashed by the next words: “… more than Leah.”

This is not merely unexpected. It is also grammatically impossible. You cannot have a sentence that says, “X also loved Y more than Z.” The “also” and the “more than” contradict one another.

Then comes the next phrase and it is shocking: “The L-rd saw that Leah was hated (Gen. 29:30).

Was Leah hated? No. The previous sentence has just told us she was loved. But it means that is how Leah felt. She was loved, but less than her sister. Someone in that situation cannot help but feel rejected. The Torah forces us to hear Leah’s pain in the names she gives her children. Her first she calls Reuben, saying, “It is because the L-rd has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” The second she calls Shimon, “Because the L-rd heard that I am not loved.” The third she called Levi, saying; “Now at last my husband will become attached to me” (Gen. 29:32-35). There is sustained anguish in these words.

It began with love. There is no other love story quite like it in the Torah. Abraham and Sarah are already married by the time we first meet them. Isaac’s wife was chosen for him by his father’s servant. But Jacob is more emotional than the other patriarchs; that is the problem. Love unites but it also divides. It leaves the unloved, even the less loved, feeling rejected, abandoned, forsaken, alone. That is why you cannot build a society, a community or even a family on love alone. There must be justice-as-fairness also.

If we look at the fifteen times the word “love,” ahavah, is mentioned in the book of Genesis, we make an extraordinary discovery. Every time love is mentioned, it generates conflict. Isaac loved Esau but Rebecca loved Jacob. Jacob loved Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, more than his other sons. From these came two of the most fateful sibling rivalries in Jewish history.

Judaism is a religion of love. In the world of myth, the gods were at worst hostile, at best indifferent to humankind. In contemporary atheism the universe and life exist for no reason whatsoever – we are accidents of matter, the result of blind chance and natural selection. Judaism’s approach is the most beautiful I know. We are here because G-d created us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others. Love, G-d’s love, is implicit in our very being.

So many of our texts express that love – the paragraph before the Shema with its talk of “great” and “eternal love”; the Shema itself with its command of love and many more. If you want to live well, love. If you seek to be close to G-d, love. If you want your home to be filled with the light of the Divine Presence, love. Love is where G-d lives.

But love is not enough. You cannot build a family, let alone a society, on love alone. For that you need justice also. Love is for this person not that, but justice is for all.

Justice without love is harsh. Love without justice is unfair, or so it will seem to the less loved. Yet to experience both at the same time is virtually impossible. At the heart of the moral life is a conflict with no simple resolution. There is no general rule to tell us when love is the right reaction and when justice is. In the 1960s the Beatles sang, “All you need is love.” Would that it were so, but it is not. Love is not enough. Let us love, but let us never forget those who feel unloved. They too are people. They too have feelings. They too are in the image of G-d.


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.