D’var Torah: Acting from love greater than acting from fear

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg is Senior Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregation.

By Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

One who acts from love is greater than one who acts from fear

A few years ago, I received a Hanukkah card from CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), but this was not your “typical” feel-good card, rather — as CLAL generally does — it was a teaching, learning, and thinking card.  The front said “Replace Fear with Purpose” and then stated, “For more than 20 centuries Hanukkah has celebrated the triumph of purpose and hope over fear and despair.  And in these troubled times, maintaining that perspective is more important than ever.” Then on the inside was a piece of text from the Talmud that has remained with me: “One who acts from love is greater than one who acts from fear.” Sotah 31a  


What a powerful, powerful statement!  

How many of us think about the motivations that cause us to act in our lives?

In this week’s parashah, Vayashev, we find examples of those who acted from love, Reuven and Tamar, rather than from fear, although at first read it may not seem this way. 

Joseph, as we are told, is his father’s favorite and his brothers know it. His brothers are tired of him and the favoritism. One day, they decide to do something about it, to get rid of Joseph by killing him.  It is Reuven who speaks up and suggests that they not kill him, but rather throw him into a pit and leave him there. Reuven suggests this and plans to come back at a later time and rescue his younger brother.  Reuven, although he possibly would not admit it, was acting out of love for his younger brother.  That love was strong enough for him to speak up, not fully against the brothers, but enough to try to save Joseph’s life.  Sadly, the other brothers sold Joseph into slavery, before Reuven made it back to save him. 

Then we have the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah’s sons, Er and Onen, both of whom were married to Tamar, die because of their behavior.  It was God who caused them to die, but Judah thinks it has something to do with Tamar.  Because both have died, without leaving an heir, Judah’s third son, Shelah, is supposed to marry Tamar, but he is young and Judah asks her to wait. 

However, Judah never fulfills his promise and Tamar, who has been a righteous widow, takes matters into her own hands.  She dresses as a harlot and deceives Judah into having relations with her, but not without exacting payment, for which she asks to keep his staff, seal, and chord.  She becomes pregnant by Judah. 

When Judah finds out she is pregnant he brings her to court to have her possibly killed until she reveals, not his name, but the staff, seal  and chord of the man who got her pregnant. Judah, recognizing these as his, acknowledges that Tamar was more righteous than he, as he did not fulfill his obligations as a father. 

Tamar goes on to give birth to twins, one of whom is a direct ancestor of King David. Thus Tamar turned her fear of the situation into purpose – perhaps out of love for God, love for her first husband, love for herself and her people — she acted — she didn’t go out and simply “sleep” with anyone, she did so within the confines of the law and ultimately merited that that the greatest of kings, Kind David, would descend from her lineage.

Author Enoch Tan writes, “In everything we think and do, there are only two positions that we are intending and acting from, fear or love. When you act and intend out of fear, you attract corresponding conditions created by fear. When you act and intend out of love, you attract corresponding conditions created by love. When we are living in fear, we are living in the past or the future. We do things to make up for something that has already happened, or to prevent something that we expect to happen. But when we live and act from love, we are living in the present. We do things to enjoy what is happening now. We are not burdened by the past nor solely worried about the future. We let go of what was before and we commit ourselves to what is to come, perhaps it means that we put ourselves in God’s hands. We are free to simply live the present moment and experience it fully.”

What would our lives be like if we chose to act from love and not fear, to move forward with purpose instead of remaining stuck?  Our lives would be better, more meaningful, and filled with many more relationships and possibilities.  When we set aside exactly what holds us back and allow ourselves to be open, in a controlled way, to what may come – it is then that we move forward and move ahead in our lives and most importantly find fulfillment and purpose.

As Shabbat comes to an end this week, we usher in Hanukkah. As we light the candles, let us remember that we are here today because the Maccabees took action and responded with purpose because of their love for God. May the warmth and brightness of the lights pervade all of our homes and our spirits, leading us to be people who act from love and ultimately live lives of purpose.