Parashat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19): Conditionally unconditional
Dear Mom: It’s been a long time coming, but I owe you an apology. There have been simply too many jokes at your expense, like the time you told your friends I was such a devoted son that I spend $150 on you every week — talking to my therapist. Or, when you and Dad proudly announced the name at my bris as Dr. Joshua Hoffman. Wasn’t becoming a rabbi enough?! And Mom, about all those times you said I never called. I want you to know I would have called you first, but you always seemed to beat me to it — at 6 a.m.
I want to apologize for all those times I would get upset when you told me you loved me unconditionally. OK, the jokes imply that you love me when I give you attention, stay in touch and have a successful career. But they’re just jokes, right? I have to ask, “Can there ever really be such a thing as unconditional love?” The concept of anything unconditional is simply … romantic. Remember the joke about Oedipus? “Oedipus shmedipus, as long as you love your mother.” That’s what you always told me.
I admit I have been resentful in the past, but no longer. You told me to study the Torah, and I would like to share with you what I’ve learned. Devarim is a book that speaks in absolutes. Blessings and rewards, curses and punishments. Promises of a long life or the ejection from a land that spews us out for our disobedience. At first, hearing the consequences for our … errr imperfections … seems judgmental, even premeditated. I expected a book about God and humanity to speak of unconditional love, one that flows from parent to child without any conditions. It’s what I think I expected from you all those times you wished I chose the right tie from the two you gave me (Why didn’t I choose the other tie?). It’s frustrating to read verse after verse, chapter after chapter and realize we aren’t good enough, resilient enough, devoted enough.
Take the famous talmudic story drawn from one of the many mitzvot in this week’s Torah portion. After describing the circumstances in which one would find a bird’s nest full of eggs or little hatchlings, in which we are commanded to shoo the mother away (shliuach haken) and then grab the eggs, we read, “Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well (L’ma’an Yitav Lach) and have a long life (V’harachta Yamim)” (Deuteronomy 22:7). It’s a strange place for a mitzvah to have a condition placed on it, isn’t it? The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) takes this verse as a challenge, to describe the problems inherent in random and tragic moments of loss. “What is the reward for the child, who obeys his father’s command to ascend a ladder, shoo the mother bird away and accidentally falls off the ladder to his death?” The Talmud constructs a litany of responses, but we know there is no way to fully justify the utter devastation of this loss of life, loss of potential, loss of goodness in the world. It’s because everything in this world is conditional, even circumstances we could never expect to happen.
It hurts the most when we feel love is given with conditions that are impossible to meet. We expect, somehow, that the love we experience from another should be exactly the way we feel about them — as if the other’s affection is a mirror reflection of the love we feel. But love for another and love for God are always conditional. And I think that unfettered release of devotion and commitment is really the expression of so many discreet expressions of cause and effect, and that real love is so well practiced and habitual, it seems to happen without any forethought, as if it were unconditional.
I learned this lesson most from that word in the Torah, “L’ma’an” — in order that — as in, conditional love and affection. It’s a powerful word that has its root meaning in the Hebrew word for response — “L’anot,” as if to say loving God by observing the mitzvot is not on condition of the reward, but is a caring and enduring response to the command.
I know your love, Mom, has always been enduring, because God’s love is enduring — Ki L’Olam Hasdo. Despite the failures and the shortcomings, of which we always joke you haven’t missed an opportunity to point out, your love is always there. I’m sorry I missed more than a few of those moments along the way. Yes, your love is better than chicken soup, but as the joke goes, chicken soup is a lot cheaper.
Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative congregation in Encino.