Martin Buber on Relationships of Love

Martin Buber was one of the greatest religious figures of the 20thcentury.

Of his many remarkable contributions, perhaps none was more significant than his introduction of the concept of I-Thou relationships. For it is in these relationships that Buber believes we can best love one another.

In a typical engagement in the world, Buber believes, people experience a particular thing as an “it.”

I use things, and so do you, and the things that are used are considered “its.” Put another way, the “I” that puts an “it” to some purpose is the subject, and the “it” is the object of the action.

Yet, there are other encounters in which we enter a relationship with another in a sort of subject-subject manner. When you and I relate in this way, we’re not a subject and an object interacting, but rather two active subjects. Even more, in the special universe of this relationship, you become Thou, suggesting also that I see God in the encounter with you.

Further, with God there, isn’t love so, too? When I look at you as Thou, mustn’t I do so in love? Indeed, I-Thou appears a perfect manifestation of the two commandments Jesus called the greatest – a love of God, alongside a mutual love of self and neighbor.

While I-it relationships occur, and indeed are necessary in the world, Buber argues that an overuse of them in politics, economics, and our personal lives has caused a severe and damaging alienation.

While universal I-Thou relationships cannot occur all the time, Buber believes we can respond to our yearning for relationship, for something more enduring and fulfilling, by effectuating more I-Thou in human encounter.

When we do so, we feel and show more affection for the other as well as a sense of dutiful, loving responsibility. This replaces alienation with meaning and purpose. Further, the more we live in I-Thou the more God becomes present all around.


So, here are 18 pearls of Buber’s thinking that spell out “I-Thou.” Enjoy!

1. “We are told that man experiences his world. Man…goes over the surfaces of things and experiences them. He brings back from them some knowledge of their condition… He experiences what there is to things. But experiences alone do not bring the world to man.”

2. “The world as experience belongs to basic word I-It. The basic word I-Thou establishes the world of relation.”

3. In life with other human beings, “the relation is manifest and enters language. We can give and receive the Thou.”

4. In life with spiritual beings, “the relation is wrapped in a cloud but reveals itself.” “In every sphere, through everything that becomes present to us, we gaze toward the train of the eternal Thou; in each, we perceive a breath of it; in every Thou, we address the eternal Thou…”

5. “When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.” “He is no longer…a dot in the world grid of space and time – nor a condition that can be described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighbor-less and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”

6. Even a person with whom I’ve been in I-Thou relation may not always be so. “I do not find the human being to whom I say Thou in any Sometime and Somewhere. I can place him there and have to do this again and again, but immediately he becomes a He or a She, an It, and no longer remains my Thou.”

7. ”that I speak the word (Thou)…is a deed of my whole being; it is my essential deed.” “The basic word I-Thou can be spoken only by one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me; can never be accomplished without me. I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou…All actual life is encounter.”

8. “Every Thou in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter thing-hood again and again. In the language of objects, every thing in the world can…appear to some I as its Thou. But the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life. The It is the chrysalis; the Thou, the butterfly.”

9. “It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. The encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order.”

10. “It cannot be surveyed: If you try to make it surveyable, you lose it. It comes – comes to fetch you – and if it does not reach you it vanishes; but it comes again, transformed.”

11. “Between you and it (the encounter) there is a reciprocity of giving: You say Thou to it and give yourself to it; it says Thou to you and gives itself to you…” “…it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters.”

12. “And through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that Thou in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.”

13. “The It world hangs together in space and time. The Thou world does not hang together in space and time. The individual Thou must become an It when the event of its relation has run its course. The individual It can become a Thou by entering the event of relation.”

14. “Since one must eventually return into “the world,” why not stay in it in the first place?” Without It, a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not a human.”

15.”When man lets It have its way, the relentlessly growing It world grows over him like weeds, his own I loses its actuality, until the incubus over him and the phantom inside him exchange the whispered confession of their need for redemption.”

16. “Extended, the lines of relationship intersect in the eternal Thou. Every single Thou is a glimpse of that. Through every single Thou the basic word addresses the eternal Thou.”

17. “Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much…” Yet, for whoever pronounces the word God and really means Thou, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true Thou of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in a relationship that includes all others.”

18. “…whoever…fancies that he is godless, when he addresses with his whole devoted being the Thou of his life that cannot be restricted by any other, he addresses God.”

Hands that Profit Should Be Hands that Help

“She arises while it is yet night, and gives food to her household and a portion to her maidens. She envisions a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard…She stretches out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute.” Proverbs 31:15-16, 20


Proverbs, as we have seen over many weeks, is essentially a book that speaks of the utter importance of wisdom in our tradition. Arching over the text is a magnificent span between Lady Wisdom at the beginning and the Woman of Valor at the close – a trajectory tying the tales of two women to our understanding of deep truths.

It’s noteworthy that although there are characterizations of wisdom goddesses in mythology in the context of other wisdom traditions, we see something extraordinary in the Bible, in the special accounts of these two women and their bookending such a remarkable complex of wisdom.

Let’s recall the basic flow of Proverbs. First, the idealized Lady Wisdom calls us to live in God’s wisdom. Then, a multitude of wisdom sayings are presented. And, finally, at the end, the Woman of Valor – a model, flesh-and-blood woman – manifests in real life the ways of this wisdom.

Last week, when first introduced to the Woman of Valor, we learned how important it is to find and use the finest ingredients in our work. This may relate to the material elements of what we make, such as the components of clothes, but it may also apply to that which comprises the stuff of spirit and ethics.

As the Malbim teaches, it is our duty principally to fashion a certain type of “attire,” which means, more deeply, a goodness, which is composed of the threads of virtue.

Next, we learned that the Woman of Valor is like merchant’s ships that bring sustenance from afar. Such ships convey the supplies of physical sustenance. But, metaphorically, they also represent the means by which the best ideas and influences are brought to nourish us in God’s ways.

This week, a new idea appears: the Woman of Valor rises early to do this work of nourishing others. She firmly believes no time can be lost in tackling her responsibilities; rather, available time must be used maximally.

It’s as if she understands one key aspect of being created in God’s image. If the Great Creator must always be vigilant in sustaining those in Divine care, the Woman of Valor believes she, too, should constantly be about the task of caring, at least as much as is humanly possible.

Beyond sustaining others in the present, though, she also prepares for the future. She imagines oncoming needs, and she strives to meet them by looking for a good field, buying it, and planning its productive cultivation as a vineyard.

Just as the seeds of fruit, properly planted and sustained, will lead to growing trees that will enable the production of fruit for the future; the seeds of this woman’s vision, work, skill, and prudent management will yield over time the sweet, sustaining fruit of a healthy profit.

What’s the purpose of the profit? We can assume, in part, that it will be to support her household and the ongoing enterprise of the field and the vineyard. But, actually, the first thing we read explicitly is that the Woman of Valor stretches out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute.

Does the Bible oppose profit? The account of the Woman of Valor clearly answers, no. But, can we be selfish with our profits? Are they to be ours, without further expectations? The answer again is clearly, no.

That so much attention is paid to these issues here and elsewhere in Proverbs should tell us of their significance. Our tradition teaches that we should value work and strive for success, while knowing that we’re primarily to be stewards of the fruit of that success.

Hands that profit should be hands that help.

Can There Be Hope Again After Hope Has Been Lost?

(D’var Torah prepared for Erev Shabbat – Matot-Massei and its accompanying Haftarah from Jeremiah.)


I. Last year I devoted my religious blog entirely to writing about the nexus each week between the Torah portion and its companion haftarah. One realization of this work that was especially striking to me was how much the haftarah actually supports and reinforces the parashah, and vice versa. I’m still not exactly sure how that happens, but it frequently and wondrously does.


II. I see three particular messages that flow back and forth from parashah to haftarah this week. But, before we get to them, let’s understand the general setting.

A. In Torah, we’re now in the concluding chapters of B’midbar, in the double portion of Matot and Massei. The people are on the verge of entering the land, and so very hopeful. Can you imagine the excitement they must have felt? The anticipation? The readiness?

B. Yet, in the haftarah, in Jeremiah, we instantly move forward several centuries, only to find an incredibly different landscape. Here instead of hope, promise and God-ward intention, we find hypocrisy, corruption, and oncoming despair and desolation.

C. On this Shabbat, we have both texts in front of us – one, expressive of a moment of great hope, on the cusp of grand fulfillment; and the other, reflective of abandonment by the people of their God, with a sense of their being on the edge of losing it all.

What in the world happened to precipitate such a decline? What does it mean for us? Is there any basis for hope in this sad story?

Let’s take a look.


III. In Jeremiah, God lets us know immediately how far the people have fallen: “What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced them from Me…? I brought you into a fruitful land; but you came and contaminated my land, and made my heritage an abomination.”

How could this have happened?

Perhaps we can find clues by looking back and forth from the Torah text and the haftarah.

A. First, both texts evidence the importance of sound, principled, God-oriented leadership to a community’s wellbeing.

1. How does our double Torah portion begin? Moses speaks to the rahshay hamatot, to the heads of the tribes, giving them crucial instructions as to how to determine the validity of vows and the means of honoring them.

Moses is preparing the next generation of leaders, teaching them in the use of both righteousness and mercy in guiding the people’s affairs.

There’s a sense that while vows are important in and of themselves, the regulation and implementation of vows is representative of all the work that leaders must do and do well.

2. This theme of leadership’s importance also plays out in Moses’ complex negotiations with the Gadites and the Reubenites, with respect to their desire for land in separate territories.

This request was controversial and complicated. Some argued then, and some still do, that the request was wrong-headed and should not have been approved.

Yet, Moses works with the tribe’s leaders respectfully to find common ground. The two tribes commit militarily to help the community over time in taking the land, and they, in turn, are allowed to fulfill their ambitions.

3. At the end of Massei, we see again the vital importance of good leaders. The daughters of Zelophehad advocate, in the absence of male heirs, for their retaining the inheritance of their father.

With God’s help, Moses and the daughters work, as good leaders do, to reach just and righteous ends.

4. But, when we turn to the haftarah, what do find has happened to the community’s leadership as time has passed? The leaders have failed totally. Far worse than merely missing the mark in their duties and assignments, those in power seem to be altogether disconnected from God.

Listen to God’s indictment of the leaders: “Those charged with teaching the Torah did not know Me.” They, the Kohanim, the prophets, and the shepherds “went after those that cannot avail.” The house of Israel has been shamed – “they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets.”

5. The Torah is absolutely fastidious in teaching the essential place for true leadership in guiding the community.

Yet, in Jeremiah, no strong, principled leaders are to be found. Rather, it’s an awful, ungodly, and corrupt leadership that has been singularly instrumental in bringing Judah to the verge of a calamitous end.

B. In a second respect in which both texts – together – teach us vital lessons, we see how crucial it is for the people to experience, remember, and honor the ways of deliverance by which God has brought us to His service.

1. What do we find at the beginning of Massei? All the stops of the entire desert route from Egypt to the Promised Land are enumerated. Why?

Whether it was our people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land way back then or our spiritual journey from narrowness to Godliness in our own time, we’re to keep God’s blessings of the markers on our path clearly in mind and treasure them forever.

These moments are miraculous and deserve to be as valued long after the journey is complete as they were during its course.

2. Yet, did our people, as recorded in Jeremiah, remember and honor those markers?

No! To the contrary, they seemed prepared to go back to the very place, Egypt, where their ancestors had been held in bondage. “And now what is there for you on the road to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile?”

God broke off our yoke, and we pledged not to transgress, “but on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree,” they reclined “as a harlot,” bringing on the most awful consequences.


IV. To our great relief and glory, there’s a third aspect in which the two texts resonate of each other.

The haftarah blessedly doesn’t end with the gloom of the pain our forebears experienced as a result of misbehavior in leadership, ingratitude for miracles, and going down wrong paths.

It’s as if those who established this haftarah would not allow us to go away hopeless.

A. Sephardim remember that if we “return,” “remove detestable things” and “do not waver,” and “’swear as the Lord lives,’ in sincerity, justice, and righteousness – Nations shall bless themselves” by us.

B. Ashkenazim add: “If only from now on,” we would call God “My Father,” “You are the master of my youth.”

Today we have both texts in front of us – in one, there’s the hope of approaching the Promised Land in God’s ways, and, in the other, there’s the punishment Jeremiah prophesied for straying from those ways. So, what are we to make of it?

V. Can there be hope again after hope has been lost? What can be done to revive it?

A. First, we have the model of Moses’ leadership. We can lead in our own lives as he did in his. We can learn about vows, fulfill them and lead others to do so, too. We can lead by working with others to reach mutually satisfactory solutions to our problems.

B. We can remember our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And we can, through memory, exhibit gratitude for those and the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us. How very different life can be for the one who is grateful for God’s gifts.

C. And, finally, we can relish and utilize God’s extraordinary gift to us of teshuvah. “If only from now on,” we turn and dedicate ourselves to the ways of Torah, we can, as Rashi teaches, return to our original glory and greatness.

A Woman of Valor

“A woman of valor who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value…She seeks wool and flax, and her hands work willingly. She is like a merchant’s ships; from afar she brings her sustenance.” Proverbs 31:10, 13-14


This week we begin a 3-part series on a truly remarkable character, the woman of valor. With this study, we close out our examination of Proverbs.

What an amazing journey it’s been. We have encountered some of the most valuable wisdom that can be found anywhere. Often, this has been a wisdom that guides us specifically in how we should act in a variety of settings and circumstances. But, even better, it’s been a wisdom that teaches us how to think and how to fashion the best decisions for our actions.

One feature of Proverbs that may be its most extraordinary is the arc that spans from beginning to end. We start with Lady Wisdom, who, as a child and “spokesperson” of God, calls us to follow in her ways. We close the book with the woman of valor, who, as a flesh-and-blood human being, shows us how to live wisely in the real world.

The first thing we learn of this woman we newly encounter in Chapter 31 is that she’s a person of valor whose value is far beyond pearls.

It’s very cool to know that the word translated as valor means much more than that. The Hebrew word is chayil. Yes, it can mean valorous. But it can also mean noble, capable, accomplished, virtuous, wealthy, and strong. Plus, it’s related to a word that means army.

Wow. What do we make of that?

Surely, no one person can be expected to have all those qualities. But a person might be able to have a solid mix of them. So, perhaps we should keep all of them in mind, as a holistic sense of the ideal. In that way, we could endeavor, as best we can, to emulate the qualities of this person Proverbs models as one who lives in wisdom.

Next, we’re taught that being like this woman yields greater value than the most precious material objects in the world. In a sense, then, if we’re motivated to find things of greatest value, we should turn away from the material and seek instead to be like her and be with others who are.

Now, in the text, we begin to see this woman in action. What do we notice first? She seeks wool and flax, and her hands work willingly.

The first part of her work is to obtain the ingredients she and her companions will use. These ingredients are to be of great utility and variety, as are wool and flax. And we presume that since she seeks them out herself, they will also be of high quality.

Isn’t it so, too, that our character traits – and our lives more generally – are largely determined by the elements of which they’re made? One could say that our teachings and our values are our core fibers, and we should seek them out as carefully as does the woman of valor, her wool and flax. As the Malbim teaches, we work willingly and purposefully to weave together “garments” for our souls such that our “attire” is goodness composed of the threads of virtue.

The woman of valor is like merchant’s ships that bring sustenance from afar. What does this mean?

It could mean that she goes to great lengths to provide the best sustenance for her family, both from her estate and beyond.

At a deeper level, it may mean more than physical sustenance. Perhaps she looks, too, for the best ideas and the best influences to nourish her community, and she’s willing and able to travel and trade to bring them home.

In other words, she seeks to “import” wisdom from afar. This could be that she brings to bear in her own world ideas and inspiration from heaven, from God. It may be that she studies sages and wise men and women from far away, both in time and place, and uses their teachings as sustenance for those who live in her midst.

Well, friends, we’ll stop here for now. Next week our heroine will show us how vision, entrepreneurship, business success, and caring for others, including the poor, can go very well together.

See you then!

Duties of the Heart

I believe you’ll find this week’s “coffee with a great sage” to be a real treat.

As fresh and vital as his thinking is today, it’s amazing that the rabbi/philosopher, Bachya ibn Pakuda, lived in 11thcentury Spain. Essentially, he believed that his peers paid too much attention to the outward observance of rules and not nearly enough to the inner ideas and forces that can bring God’s teachings effectively into our lives.

Through Ibn Pakuda’s teachings, we learn how to create within our hearts a greater willingness and joyful readiness to perform life’s duties, especially by serving and loving God.


1. “Reflect on God’s greatness, abilities, wisdom, and abundance.

Note man’s weakness and faults…

Discern all the good and kind things the Creator has done for us…

Do all that and…you will realize how obliged we are to serve, revere, praise, acknowledge, and constantly glorify God.”


2. God has bestowed many blessings. There are those kindnesses extended to all, such as creation and life itself. Particular peoples have experienced special goodness. God has also granted kindness to us in our families and as individuals. “We are all obliged to serve God according to our position in these four divisions;” as these kindnesses accumulate in our minds, the more we desire to serve Him.


3. “”Service” is the act of surrendering that a recipient of a favor exhibits toward his benefactor when he reciprocates to the very best of his ability.”


4. That which induces people to serve God can come from external sources (for example, the Bible), or it can be self-induced. Initially, we rely on external direction because  “it is important to employ something that will not depend on…animalistic desires, but will depend instead on your mind freed from the oppression of desires.”

“When the mind is immersed in (the Bible), it becomes active…and enlightened; it eradicates the ignorance that oppresses your soul and prevents you from seeing things for what they are and in proper perspective.”


5. A. Torah-induced service to God has its own features and advantages. It is “praiseworthy” in that it guides doing “what one is obliged to do in service to God.” “It applies equally to everyone” and “is very easy to come by.” Also, it “is a preparation for and a preamble to self-induced service.”

Yet, when one is capable of self-induced service, that is “closer to God and more desirable.”

B. Self-induced service is usually done “altruistically” and “in a spirit of soul-generosity and from a desire to serve God as best as possible for the sake of His name that is based on knowledge and understanding.”

Self-induced service “is far more internally rather than externally active,” and it is open to limitless possibilities in that it is not based on a finite number of rules.


6. “Self-inducement is God reminding you through your ability to reason how to know Him, and to acknowledge the signs of His wisdom.”


7. “What brings you to self-inducement is the realization of all the Creator has implanted within human reason: an admiration for truth…, a preference for righteousness and an aversion to wrongdoing, the rewarding of those who do good with virtue and gratitude, the recompensing of evil with bad and criticism, the ability to live peaceably with others,…and to forgive sinners who truly repent.”


8. Reason teaches that we must abandon excessive love of the pleasures of the physical world and our own love of power and arrogance if we are to “draw closer to and approach God” to serve Him.

Detaching from these “reprehensible traits” will “bring you tranquility and will relieve you from the darkness of this cauldron of a world…

Your ultimate destiny is a house of repose.”


9. There are worthy levels of serving God, but the highest is of “people who firmly believe in the truth of the Torah as well as what is due them in the way of reward and punishment in both worlds; who force themselves not to be negligent; who are always aware of how indebted they are to the Creator for His great goodness and kindness; and who do not concentrate on reward and punishment, but rush to serve God for the sake of His name alone, to aggrandize Him lovingly and wholeheartedly…”


10. “Remember God’s goodness by constantly talking about it and by frequently thanking and praising Him for it in your heart…”


11.”Do not think God’s goodness will only persist if you keep making the effort, or that you will lose it once you stop.”


12. “Be completely true to God in your intentions and in your surrender to Him.”


13. “Empty your heart of the love of the world, and free it from its desires through awareness and understanding, and the love of God will fix itself in your heart and establish itself in your soul as much as you want to and are aware of it.”


14. “The love of God is the demonstration of the soul’s longing and inherent affinity for the Creator that gives it the capacity to cling to His supernal light.”


15. “Love of the Creator should incorporate your soul, body, possessions…”. “You should be generous in all three…; you should not be frugal in any of them when it comes to fulfilling His will.”


16.  One behavior that prevents you from loving God is “hatred for those who love Him and love for those who hate Him…”


17. A. “When you are distressed by something worldly, these stanzas will remind you to trust God.”

B. “When you do something that may lead to arrogance or haughtiness, they will remind you to surrender yourself.”

C. “When you neglect things related to…your faith, they will remind you to attach yourself to the service of God.”


18. A. “Those who love God…know their God and realize that He is pleased with them, that He guides, directs, and sustains them…”

B. “They praise and thank God for their accomplishments, as He praises them for their efforts and choices.”

C. “They use the knowledge of God in their hearts to serve Him as if they were serving alongside the holy angels in the highest heavens.”