Love Lessons from Lecha Dodi

The mystical poem sung during Kabbalat Shabbat services is a model for our relationship with God -- and with each other.

Love. It’s a simple word, but virtually impossible to define or truly understand. Is it a feeling? A state of being? A noun? A verb? And while we may struggle to put it into words or explain it, we all seek it in one way or another.

From a Jewish mystical perspective, the entire Torah can be understood as a manual for having loving and healthy relationships. Jewish mysticism teaches that all of creation is a marriage between human beings and God. One clear allusion to this is that the first and last letters of the Torah spell the Hebrew word for heart, lev, our primary symbol for love.

So it should be no surprise that Shabbat, the culmination of the week, is also the day we focus on love. Shabbat is the time we stop creating and connect to being, and where we make our relationships our priority. Even the word Shabbat is a poetic contraction for the Hebrew words shalom bayit, which means “peace in the home,” the goal that all relationships should strive for.

One of the most well-known prayers that ushers in Shabbat is Lecha Dodi, a poem written by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, a great Jewish mystic who lived in the 16th century. The title translates to “Come out my Beloved.” It begins with the words: Lecha dodi, likrat kallah, penei Shabbat n’kabalah, which means: “Come, beloved to greet the bride! Let us receive the Shabbat.”

We learn in the Midrash that each day of creation was partnered. Days 1 and 4 are connected to light, days 2 and 5 with water and the oceans, days 3 and 6 with earth and vegetation. Yet day 7, Shabbat, had no partner. So God promised Shabbat that it would not be alone and the Jewish people would be its partner. Therefore, as Shabbat begins, we go out to greet our beloved, like a groom would greet his bride.

It is known that Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, the foremost teacher of Jewish mysticism, would go out to the fields to greet Shabbat. From this we learn that if we want our beloved to come out (out of their shell, come towards us, be open) we need to make the effort to take the first step and go out and greet them. To connect with someone requires a willingness to work, to trust and to be vulnerable.

The second verse states: Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad. This translates to: “Guard and remember in one word.” The idea of zachor, remembrance of Shabbat, is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. But here we have a twist. Guarding (or observing) Shabbat and remembering it must be united. The Talmud explains that God miraculously uttered both words simultaneously Shavuot 20b, so we can understand literally how they were one. But the lesson it teaches must be integrated into our interpersonal relationships.

Remembrance is generally of things past, while guarding is very much focused on the present and the future. Both are needed and intertwined. Why is remembering the past so important? Often we hear that the past should be left in the past. And yet, Judaism teaches us that we always remember what was to ensure that we repeat what was positive and avoid what was negative.

In my work as a relationships coach, couples often seek me out when things are really problematic. When there is so much tension, hurt and difficulty in a relationship, it is hard for either partner to understand how anything ever worked between them. One of the first things I do is try to bring them back to a memory of when they were happy, when they saw the other as beloved and felt the intense love that they had on their wedding day.

When a couple can remember when things were healthy and positive, they have a starting point. They have something they can tap into and work toward achieving again. But to do so, they must actively remember those thoughts, feelings and actions that resulted in intense feelings of love and connectedness.

In Lecha Dodi, we start with shamor, with guarding. Protect your love. Protect yourself from distraction, temptation or simply boredom. Healthy relationships require constant work. They require effort at ensuring that the other person is always a priority. Complacency results in laziness, which leads to taking advantage of the other. One of the ways we avoid this is by guarding our time. Just as on Shabbat we stop working and focus on the internal, so too we must ensure that there is always time that is dedicated to the relationship.

And protect yourself. Ensure you take time each day to think about your relationship, to focus on your partner, to recognize the blessing of having someone in your life who loves and cares about you. We must guard and protect what is valuable to us, and our relationship is the most precious thing of all. We do this through remembering the past we share together, ensuring that we work constantly and consistently on the present, and prepare together for a solid and healthy future. Then shamor and zachor are truly one.

Lecha Dodi continues for another seven stanzas, each referring to different aspects of our relationship with Shabbat. Each of those can, in turn, be connected to our relationships with one another. Between each stanza, we sing again “Come, beloved to greet the bride! Let us receive the Shabbat,” for a total of nine repetitions. The poem begins with this line and ends with this line, reminding us that these messages need to be remembered, guarded and repeated.

Sara Esther Crispe is a writer, motivational speaker, and life and relationships coach. She is the founder of and co-director of Interinclusion, an educational non-profit celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. She lives with her family in Danby, Vermont, where they run experiential Jewish retreats.

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