The conversation began with a discussion of the V’Ahavta—the statement of Israel’s obligations to love God “with all your heart, and all your might, and all your soul”. This paragraph stands at the very heart of Jewish liturgy.
“A colleague of mine recently asked an interesting question,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “Why is it, he wanted to know, that in our liturgy, there is so little mention of love? We talk about service, about duties, about obligations… But we rarely speak of God’s love for us or our love for God.”
Now one of the things that I’ve learned from Rav Ish-Shalom is this: Before setting out to explain why a particular thing is true, it’s best first to inquire whether it is, in fact, true!
And so, I turn the light of that principle on the assumption made by Rav Ish-Shalom’s colleague. Is it really true that our liturgy doesn’t speak of God’s love of us? Seems to me that the premise itself is false. Our liturgy is full to over-flowing with talk of God’s love for us. It shines through in countless psukim and words of praise. It’s just that all of this is phrased in ways that we, living in the modern world, have become unaccustomed to see as referring to love. We “modernists” see love in very “verbal” terms. In fact the modernist tends to see much of life as “verbal’, “virtual’, “a matter of the heart”. He has lost touch with the deed, with actions, and obligations. His food comes from the supermarket, not the ground. His love is neatly packaged, neatly expressed, and bears no real obligation or responsibility.
But what is love really? How does a father love his children, not in word, but in deed? He educates them. He helps them to grow into their names. He counsels them, even as he allows them to learn from their own mistakes. In short, his love is expressed in good parenting. Do we not have ample examples in our literature and liturgy of God as educator, parent, and counselor? How does a mother love her children? She educates them. She accepts them even with their imperfections. She grieves in their sorrow and rejoices in their happiness. She feeds them and clothes them. Do we not have ample examples in our literature and in our liturgy of God feeding all life, clothing the naked, etc.? Are we not enjoined to act as God’s hands and eyes in loving and caring for one another?
How can anyone say that we don’t speak of God’s love? So much of Jewish liturgy overflows with the appreciation of this deeper type of love. It is not a one-way street. This is not the philosopher’s “Intellectual Love of God”. There is no expectation of love without reciprocation, rather this is a relationship. Love is not an outward expression of that relationship. It is not the icing on the cake; it is the flour of which the cake is made. Love—mutual love—is the very foundation of that relationship. In fact, our Torah includes a statement that it isn’t due to any merit of Israel’s that we were chosen to receive the Torah, but only that God loved our ancestor Avraham.
There is something much deeper than the “declarative love” on which so many modern marriages are built. The deeper love is the love that says: “Even though you are wrong, I will stand by you. Even though you have disgraced yourself and disgraced me in the process, I will not abandon you, even if it means I will be further disgraced by you. I will stand by you and try to educate you because I know that you have it in you to make me proud of you.” That is the love of a parent. This deeper love is not the declarative sort that sends flowers to the beloved and thinks that it has fulfilled its obligation. Rather, it is the sort that sits beside the beloved’s sickbed in hospital night after night, long after the doctors have given up hope. It is the sort that gives the last of one’s food to another, in full knowledge that he will be dead in half an hour despite all we can do. It is the sort of love that opens its hand to those who strive to return, no matter how far they’ve wandered.
We don’t mention God’s love for us just as we don’t “theologize” about God the way some religions do. We aren’t obsessed with theorizing about God simply because we take God for granted, as an axiom. We don’t expect our tradition to provide “theological” answers, but to tell us what sort of people we should aspire to be, and how to live in order to make ourselves into such. This is a turning toward the world, with God in the background, rather than turning toward God with the world in the background. It is a path that starts with God and goes outward—a path from God to the world. It is a very rocky path in places.
While most religions tend to be God-oriented, our culture takes God as the starting point, a given, something that scarcely needs to be acknowledged. It is taken for granted as the air we breathe. We are not God-oriented. We start from God and look toward the world. We are life-oriented. And so with this concept of love. It is axiomatic. It doesn’t need to be constantly mentioned because it is woven into the very fabric of our being and finds expression in our liturgy, not in what we say, but in what we have no need of saying.
The spaces between the letters speak volumes of our love for God, and God’s love for us.