Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece A Doll’s House ends with a powerful message about love. The plot of the play is simple. Nora Helmer is married to Torvald Helmer, a newly promoted bank manager who one day decides to fire his long-time employee, Nils Krogstad. However Krogstad has a secret, one that he is willing to exploit to keep his job. Eight years previously, Torvald contracted an illness. Nora borrowed money in secret from Krogstad to pay for his treatment and in the process forged a document in her dead father’s name. To keep his job, Krogstad blackmails Nora; if she doesn't convince Torvald to keep him as an employee, Krogstad will expose her crime to her husband and to society.
In much of the play, Nora struggles with how she will deal with the shame of her actions. In the end, she decides that to save her husband; she will take her own life. However, before she is able, Torvald learns of her secret. Quickly, he becomes angry, berating her for moral her bankruptcy. He threatens her, telling her that she should never raise their children because she is not to be trusted. He complains, “Henceforward there can be no question of happiness, but merely of saving the ruins, the shreds, the show of it!”
Eventually the crisis subsides. Nora and Torvald learn that Krogstad will not be pursuing legal action against her. The blackmail is a bust. But the damage has already been done. Nora was ready to end her life to save her husband. Torvald was willing to sacrifice nothing to help Nora. As she explains:
I have waited so patiently all these eight years for of course I saw clearly enough that miracles don't happen every day. When this crushing blow threatened me, I said to myself so confidently, "Now comes the miracle!" When Krogstad's letter lay in the box, it never for a moment occurred to me that you would think of submitting to that man's conditions. I was convinced that you would say to him, "Make it known to all the world"; and...I firmly believed that you would come forward, take everything upon yourself, and say, "I am the guilty one."
Here, Nora makes an important point about love. Love is fed by sacrifice. She was willing to end her life to save her husband the shame of her misdeeds. Torvald was not willing to do anything that would hurt himself to save her. As he explains, “I would gladly work for you day and night, Nora- bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man sacrifices his honour, even for one he loves.”
When it was written 1879, A Doll’s House created a sensation because faced with this loveless marriage and confronted with the selfish conventions of the time, Nora left her husband at the end of the play. As she explains, “You have never loved me. You only thought it amusing to be in love with me.” For her, love is found in the ability to forfeit comfort and stand for the other.
Reading the Bible, it is clear that Moses understands the interplay between sacrifice and love. It is no question that despite the fact that the people rebel and defy him (and God) Moses continues to love them. We see a glimpse of this love in this week’s Torah portion. In it, the people build a golden calf and begin worshiping it. When God hears of their sin he threatens to destroy them, offering to build the Jewish people anew from Moses’ seed, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (ex 32:10). But Moses will have none of this. He convinces God to let the people live and later, after allowing God space to cool down, Moses asks for God to forgive the people.
Here, with deep love, Moses shows his willingness to yield everything for their sake, “"But now, if You will, forgive their sin-- and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!" (Ex 32:32). And by going to the mat for people, Moses does save them. God punishes some, but the nation as a whole is spared.
Reflecting on this text many years later, our Rabbis wrote:
"All of his holy ones are in Your hand" (Dt 33:3): These are the leaders of Israel, who stand over Israel and (are ready to) give up their lives for them. Of Moses it is written (Shemoth 32:32) "And now if You will bear their sin, (good), but if not, erase me, I pray You, from Your book that You have written." Of David it is written (II Samuel 24:17) "I have sinned and I have transgressed, but these sheep, what have they done?" (Sifrei Devarim 344:2)
As they explain, for Moses (and later for David, who defends the people during a plague by offering his life) love is most deeply felt in the sacrifices we are willing to make for those in our midst.
Sadly the people do not respond. If Moses is Nora, then the people are Torvald. When later in his life, Moses is punished by God and refused entrance into the land of Israel, they say nothing, thinking of only themselves. As long as they can find their way to Canaan, they will remain silent. However, their folly need not be our own.
We can love deeply by offering much. Holding another’s trouble in your hand and guarding them from harm, though scary, is one of the truest ways to convey devotion. Not everyone must give up what Moses and Nora were willing sacrifice. Even small offerings of self-abnegation can send another the powerful message that they matter and that during a crisis they come first.