Forgetting for a moment whether Valentine’s Day has religious antecedents or it is just a Hallmark and FTD gimmick to sell cards and flowers, the pertinent question should be: “Is it positive for a society to have a day that celebrates love?”
One potential argument can be easily swatted away, the one that points at various manifestations of illicit love, or at any rate questionable sexuality identifying itself as love. Sure, it is fascinating to read that private detective agencies around the country are booked to capacity with surveillance work of wayward spouses whose paramours demand a surreptitious visit during the course of the day. Still, it is not reasonable to reject social institutions on the basis of their abusers; the sun itself served as a magnet for much idolatry in its early history. The only legitimate complaint would be if a case could be made that the holiday apotheosizes love in a way that encourages abuse. This is patently not the case here.
Still we ask. Is love a phenomenon that benefits society?
THE BIBLE HAS always fascinated me on the subject of love. Concentrating on the five books of Moses, we note that only two couples have their love, and its genesis, recorded in the text. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses all get married at some point in the narrative, and some of the interactions in the marriages are transcribed, but at no point is their feeling for each other specifically described as love. The only two men whose love for their wives is noted are Isaac and Jacob.
Yet the evolution – you should forgive the expression – of those loves are a study in contrasts. In Isaac’s case, there is first extensive research undertaken by his emissary to determine that Rebecca is of a suitable character to be the wife of a great man. Until such clarification has been achieved, they do not even meet. Once all the legwork, and some footwork, had been done by proxy, then the couple finally met in an open field. Thereafter we are advised that Isaac “took Rebecca, made her his wife and he loved her” (Genesis 24:67). First the checklist, then marriage and finally love.
Jacob’s story is quite the opposite. He goes to Haran, hoping to find a wife among the members of his extended family. Stopping at the well, he sees that the shepherds are gathering; it usually takes the combined strength of the entire group to move the stone off the opening to the well. Suddenly he sees Rachel leading her flock of sheep towards the area; immediately he is so energized that he single-handedly lifts the huge rock. The verse twice stresses that he loved her before marriage, even that his love was so powerful that the seven years he worked full-time as a shepherd to win her hand seemed like a small price to pay (ibid 29:1-20). Love at first sight, then a long grueling effort to bring the courtship to fruition and finally marriage.
Clearly the Bible sought to isolate and highlight these two models, each legitimate in a given setting. There is the conservative by-the-book approach of finding a good match, with the prospect of a cumulative love emerging from the shared experiences of marriage. Then we have the prophetic flash of love at first sight, where the bond precedes all the rationales and Fate emblazons its signature on the emotions before reason gets a chance to blink. Since in Jewish tradition Isaac represents the transitional figure whose charge is to be a guardian of the family patrimony and Jacob is considered the perfected man who brings history to climactic moments, their two versions of love and marriage seem to suit their roles.
Hollywood, along with most romantic literature, is more captivated by the second version, and our reading bears them out. Love at first sight may be exciting in a sensual way, too, but more than anything it is a spiritual experience; it reinforces the notion that there is a Creator who has a plan for you and has designed someone who complements you perfectly, like two puzzle pieces that seem awkward apart and symmetrical together. Add to that the idea that it is the Jacob-type personality, the closer, the man who makes big things happen, who has this experience, and it becomes the dream of every person. Perhaps destiny will visit me in this dramatic way and mark me as a candidate for an extra-meaningful life.
In either of its forms, love makes us whole. It takes us out of ourselves into the world of the other. We are reminded, sometimes a tad shrilly, that there are other ways to approach things, other ways to see the world, other tastes and flavors to life. Bring it on, I say, let us be a nation of lovers. Now where did I put that phone number for the florist…?