Love—Great and Eternal

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On May 24, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

The first paragraph of the Shema’ invites us to affirm the unity of God, and then engages the topic of love, the love from a person to God: “ve’ahavat et Adonai Eloheykha” (You shall love Adonai your God). Several important questions present themselves. First, is the phrase “you shall love” to be understood as an imperative? The grammar supports such a construction, leading us to wonder how love can be commanded. A command can be given to bring specified sacrifices, to eat matzah on Pesah, and to show deference to the old, but how can we be commanded to love? Some commentators avoid the dilemma by suggesting the meaning is that we are to behave in a way that would express our love for God, but this avoids the deeper question about how and why this love for God is born in our hearts and minds.

My friend Rabbi Leila Gal Berner suggests that the text can reasonably be read to suggest an element of Divine yearning. “Oh . . . if only you would love your God with all your heart, soul and might!” This is consistent with the talmudic teaching, “rahaman liba ba’ei” (the All-Merciful desires [only] the human heart). Reading in this way, the Shema’ invites us twice daily to offer the one thing that God cannot command—because it is impossible—human love.

In the evening and morning liturgy, the Shema’ is preceded by a paragraph that speaks of God’s love for the Jewish People: in the evening, we find “Ahavat olam beyt Yisrael ahavta” (With eternal love have You loved Your people Israel); and in the morning, “Ahavah rabah ahavtanu” (With great love have You loved us). In each case, the text speaks of the Torah as the visible sign of God’s love. It is given to us as a gift, and in that gift of love, in the text of the Shema’, is the command/yearning for that love to be returned.

The liturgical texts offer us a pathway. The (evening) text of Ahavat olam states “uv’Torato neh’geh yomam valaila” (In his/His Torah we will meditate day and night). The words are ambiguous as to whether the Torah is “His” (God’s) or “his” (the person praying). Rashi, commenting on the source of this phrase in Psalm 2, suggests a process: at first the Torah belongs to God, but after a person learns and studies it, then that person becomes a partner with God for those words of Torah. Perhaps we can discern in this expression of mutuality about Torah a path to a relationship of growing love between each person and God. Love of God can arise in our hearts as we feel and perceive more and more that we are loved by God, always.