Rabbis Without Borders
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Now that the Superbowl is over, we can be sure that our media streams will be flooded with chocolate, diamonds and flowers. Valentine’s Day is approaching. Oh joy, oh dread.
Possibly, more so than most, I love romantic comedies and even the occasional romance novel. The schmaltzier the better, though a really well done, smart romcom like Trainwreck is worth a thousand hours of Hallmark Channel movies. I don’t buy into the premise of the genre, as I engage it, that a man and woman need each other to be whole. Nor do I embrace the hetronomativity that dominates Hollywood. And I draw a line against movies like Pretty Woman that glamorize the sex trade.
So what do I get out of my love of love white-washed –with the exception of Tyler Perry– celluloid romance?
First, there is the power of the happy ending. From time to time I get to a theater to watch a new release romcom on the big screen. But for the most part, I watch them on the small screen, while I do the dishes, chop vegetables or fall asleep. Though I aspire one day to see these and other chores as a spiritual practice, enlightening and meaningful in their own right, I’m not yet there. Because of the predictable nature of most romantic movies I don’t need to pay full attention to know what is going on or how it will end. It is safe and it is predictable, and in a crazy world with illness, war, climate change, baseless hatred, it is blissful escapist fun.
But there is more than that. At the core of the successful romcom and romance novel is a fundamental spiritual truth; two people, separate and unique, whole each on their own, can bridge the enormous gulf that stands between them and connect. That connection is in Hollywood terms, ‘magic’ but I see it as holy. Sometimes that connection comes like a lightning bolt. Sometimes it comes after struggle to get over what divides us. But whatever the path, when it happens, it is amazing. We do become bigger than ourselves, great than the sum of two parts. And I love to watch this happen, real or imagined, straight, gay or queer.
And in its best light, this is what Valentine’s Day has come to represent. As artificial and constructed as any blockbuster, Valentine’s Day can help us remember to celebrate that which is sacred and possible by being connected deeply with another. It is precious and worthy of celebration.
And Valentine’s Day like Hollywood gets it right because it focuses on that profound moment of transcendence, fading out at the height of possibility and wonder. It removes all the messiness, the boring, the complex.
Torah, by contrast, dives right into the messiness, the boring, the complex. And I love the love stories in the Torah just as well as I love a good romcom. Like the romances of Hollywood, love in the Torah generally upholds hetronormativity and the premise that a man and woman need to be together to be whole. And I see a world that is broader and more textured. But unlike Hollywood or Harlequin for that matter, the Torah goes beyond the fade.
There is romantic love in the Torah. Jacob, for example, among those at the well sees only Rachel and is instantly smitten. Given the trials and tribulations in his family of origin, he and his twin were often at odds and his parents played favorites, it is amazing that he is able to recognize and trust the emotion and power of the connection. But there is no easy happy ending for Jacob and Rachel, there are twists and turns, betrayals, and loss. That moment by the well, as powerful as it was, was a moment and not a sustained reality. I don’t doubt that they had many more extraordinary moments between them but watching their relationship unfold we are reminded that a snapshot is just one of many moments. And it is not just Jacob, it is also Moses and his divorce, Abraham and his two wives, Esther and King Achashverosh. These are challenging and sometimes difficult relationships but they are also real.
And this is where my dread of Valentine’s Day comes in. In a flurry of balloons and red hearts, it is easy to loose sight of what love and connection looks like in the day to day. It is easy to extrapolate from the one moment of perfection and raise expectations to an unsustainable reality. Focusing on the unattainable ongoing perfection uninterrupted but flat tires, work stress, aging parents, or illness can make us feel that our lives filled with the complex, boring and annoying are not worthy.
Moreover, if love and connection comes, as we are told it does on Valentine’s Day, in grand gestures, or chocolates, or balloons, we may forget to see it in the less exciting moments. Recently a friend shared how cared for and loved she felt when her husband help fix the leaky toilet. His willingness to go out get the pieces needed and do the work to solve the problem made her appreciate not only his skill but the care he has for her and their home. It was not a big deal, there was no immanent danger, a plumber could have been called. But she saw in this everyday action, a sign of love. Valentine’s Day, with its commercialism and hype, conditions us to expect more at a cost I fear of the daily good.
So this Valentine’s Day my blessing to all of us who have found connection with another, celebrate and mark the sacred for it is holy, remember that beyond those Hollywood moments reality is often and eternally complex, but that even the mundane and the ordinary has the potential to be a revelation.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.