How often do you hear Jews talking about God’s love? For most of us, this is not something we often discuss at synagogue or in religious school. Consciously or not, many of us may have internalized the idea that Christianity is the faith of love, while Judaism is one of law.
But the authors of our liturgy believed firmly in God’s eternal and great love for the people Israel, and sought to disabuse anyone of the notion that love is not central to the Jewish tradition and our relationship with God.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Ahavat Olam and Ahavah Rabbah, two prayers that are recited during daily services just prior to the recitation of the Shema. The former is recited during the evening Maariv service and the latter during the morning Shacharit service. Both prayers are not only proclamations of God’s abundant and everlasting love for Israel, but also educational tools and theological polemics that affirm a deep and loving bond between God and the Jewish people.
There are many types of love and multiple avenues to express and direct our affections. Ahavah Rabbah and Ahavat Olam describe one such way — a parental love that God expresses for the Jewish people through the giving of Torah. Rabbi Elliot Dorff explains:
God’s love, however, does not consist in saving us through sin through a supernatural intercessor, as Christians believe; that would deprive us of free will, a critical feature of our humanity. Instead, we say here that God loves us by giving us instruction (the literal meaning of Torah) and commandments as to how we should live. This is akin to the relationship between human parents and children: One of the primary ways in which parents express their love is by establishing and enforcing reasonable rules for their children. (My People’s Prayer Book, Volume 9 Welcoming the Night, 61)
God the parent does not show us love through indulgence or simple tenets of faith, but rather by illuminating the way to a holy life, articulating clear and direct expectations and providing us with deep, eternal wisdom. The Torah both challenges us to engage with complicated, textured truths and provides us with a clear road map to live a holy life as we engage with those layers of complexity.
Of course, God’s love for Israel is not just parental. There is also an erotic love that animates the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In Song of Songs 1:2, a young maiden that represents the Jewish people begs God, “Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth, For your love is more delightful than wine.” Scholar Michael Fishbane explicates how the metaphor of young lovers applies to our relationship with God: “As love binds, so do the words of Torah recombine and elicit new laws and insights.” (JPS, Song of Songs 27)
God expresses love for Israel not only through setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries, but also by providing a Torah that begs for creativity, reinvention, and lifelong engagement. The passionate love between God and Israel is kept fresh and fragrant through manifold opportunities for reinvention and negotiation. The many layers of Torah allow our relationship with the divine to stay perpetually relevant because the complexity of our text demands constant engagement and personal investment.
Ahavah Rabbah and Ahavat Olam together serve as daily reminders that God loves us in so many ways, and that the Torah is the physical and eternal evidence of that love. It is our challenge to embrace and speak of that love openly, and to keep the relationship with the divine alive through passionate interface, novel reinterpretation, and attentive listening.