Abstract Love? Nitzavim/Va-Yelekh 5773

Is it possible to love an abstraction? To love the idea of someone or something? I don’t think so. An abstract idea may be compelling or attractive, but a powerful emotion such as love requires both immediacy and reciprocity. Each of those conditions can be qualified; you can love someone who is not currently close by, but to love a person whom you have never encountered seems unlikely. Reciprocity? Yes, we love babies even if it is unclear what they are feeling at the tender start of life. In such moments our protective instincts and imagination of the future allow us to feel love even before the infant has learned to differentiate between self and other. Perhaps it is that very phenomenon of undifferentiated existence which allows such powerful bonds to form immediately. And yes, we may love another even when they upset us and don’t show their love in return. But here too I think that there is an assumption of reciprocity at some point, even if the love may be asymmetrical for now.

We talk quite a bit about love in our liturgy—you shall love the Lord your God; You have shown us great love—but for many people the relationship with God remains abstract, and this love language feels insincere. God seems to be neither immediate nor responsive to our affection. In fact, insistence on “love” as the central liturgical emotion is part of the problem that so many people experience with our prayer. The emotional expectations are so exalted, and yet the emotional reality of prayer for many people is so limited, that a disbelief creeps into the soul, even if they consider public worship to be a generally positive experience. Some people can express love of God without any reservation, singing about their love in a trance-like state, repeating the words until doubt recedes and something like “complete faith” (Emunah sh’leimah) can take root. That is fantastic, but it simply doesn’t work for many people, and it may even alienate those who feel unable or unwilling to relate to God as a lover.

The Israeli artist Idan Raichel released a new album this summer called, “Quarter to Six.” It is pretty melancholy (as usual!). The experience of unrequited love occupies one of the songs that Raichel wrote, רק אותו, “Only him.” (See below for full lyrics in English). The refrain is, ואני בכלל רציתי רק אותו, והוא—מי יודע מה איתו. “I really wanted only him / And as for him – who knows what’s with him.” This song may or may not be about God, but it does capture the frustration of a lover who simply can’t know what the other is feeling.

One solution to the dilemma of ambiguous divine love is to say that the Hebrew word “ahavah” does not, at least in the Bible, really mean love. Modern Bible scholars tell us that “ahavah” may instead be translated as “covenantal loyalty.” Show loyalty to the Lord your God by studying Torah and guarding the commandments, etc. and God will be loyal in return. Some love– this feels like a dodge. The Bible certainly does use “ahavah” in the more emotional sense, both between people, and with God. Loyalty is an ingredient of love, but it alone is unworthy of the term “ahavah.”

Let’s look at the Bible’s most famous lover, David (whose name means beloved), assuming him to be the Psalmist (either as the actual author, or as the muse for the poets who wrote the Psalms). In Psalm 116, which is included in our Hallel collection, he opens,

אהבתי כי ישמע ידוד את קולי תחנוני.  The old JPS translation renders this, “I love that the LORD should hear my voice and my supplications”. According to this reading, David loves the sensation of being heard by God. Other translations such as King James understand God to be the implicit object of the author’s affection: “I love the Lord because…” Artscroll adds a bracketed pronoun, “I love [Him], for Hashem hears my voice.” New JPS also starts, “I love the Lord,” but then hedges with a note, “Heb. transposed for clarity; others “I would love that the Lord would hear,” etc.  “I love the Lord” is certainly clearer, but the alternative text, which is closer to OJPS and to the Hebrew original, allows for doubt. Who is loving Whom?

Moreover, the Psalmist seems to be saying that when his voice and supplications are heard by God, then he can experience love. That is, his relationship to God is contingent. When the person who prays feels that there is a divine response, then s/he can go further and express the powerful and unchecked emotion of love. This is a bit like a person entering a new relationship. They don’t usually blurt out “I love you” on the first date (awkward!). Rather, they try expressing tenderness in more limited ways, testing for a response that will eventually embolden them to escalate emotion and declare their love. Perhaps that tentative emotion is captured here?

I’ll go out on a limb and try a different translation. “Ahavti ki yishma…” can be understood, “I feel loved when the Lord hears my voice and my petitions.”  This may not work with the “peshat” of the verb, which is not in the passive form, but I am not the first to understand it this way. In Bavli Rosh HaShanah 17a, Rava explains: “The people of Israel say to the Holy One: Master of the Universe, when am I beloved (אהובה) to you? When you listen to the voice of my supplication.” Verse 6 claims, “though I am unworthy—it is pleasant for God to rescue me.” According to Rava, the Psalmist is not really proclaiming his love for God. He is asking for some reciprocity—for God to show pleasure in defending Israel.

The Hasidic writer Yehezkel Panet (1783-1845) links Rava’s drashah to another Midrash in Vayikra Rabba 29:9, about a divine oath (God says, “nishbati—I have taken an oath). According to this, Abraham’s behavior at the Akedah was strategic. Abraham implicitly said to God, “When you told me to sacrifice my son, I could have argued with you (and perhaps won the argument), but I instead acted deaf…In the future when the children of Israel sin, let your mercy conquer your anger, and rise off your throne of justice, and move to the throne of mercy, etc.” In other words, You owe me big time, God! I expect you to show it (gratitude?) for the rest of time, in your loving acceptance of Israel’s prayer. To this, God apparently agrees, and even promises with an oath. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but it certainly resonates with the anxiety that our prayers will evaporate and elicit no response.

When we blow shofar and read the story of the Akedah on Rosh HaShanah, many emotions are stirred within us. But according to these and many other Jewish texts, we are not the true audience. It is God who is supposed to “do teshuvah” and return to us when we turn to God in prayer. As we enter the final Shabbat of 5773 and then prepare for Rosh HaShanah, let’s take the initiative in directing our voice, our petition, and our love to God. And in the mysterious moments that surround us in the sanctuary, let us listen for some sort of reverberation in our soul, a quiet sign that says, סלחתי כדברך, I God have heard your words and forgiven you—with great love.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah,

R’ Danny Nevins

תהלים פרק קטז 

  (א) אהבתי כי ישמע ידוד את קולי תחנוני:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף יז עמוד א

אמר דוד +תהלים קט”ז+ אהבתי כי ישמע ה’. דרש רבא: מאי דכתיב אהבתי כי ישמע ה’, אמרה כנסת ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: רבונו של עולם, אימתי אני אהובה לפניך – בזמן שאתה שומע קול תחנוני. דלתי ולי יהושיע, אף על פי שדלה אני מן המצות – לי נאה להושיע.

מראה יחזקאל מועדים ראש השנה

א) בגמרא דר”ה [יז א] דרש רבא מאי דכתיב אהבתי כי ישמע ה’ את קולי תחנוני, אמרה כנסת ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבש”ע אימתי אני אהובה לפניך בזמן שאתה שומע קולי תחנוני, דלותי אעפ”י שדלה אני במצות לי נאה להושיע. ואין להאריך בדקדוקים, והנה איתא במדרש [ויק”ר כט ט] בי נשבעתי כו’ שבועה זו למה אלא מלמד שעמד אברהם אבינו בתפלה ותחנונים לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לפניו רבש”ע גלוי וידוע לפניך בשעה שאמרת לי קח נא את בנך כו’ והעלהו לעולה היה לי מה להשיב היה לי מה לאמר אלא ואהיה כחרש לא אשמע כו’ ואין בפיו תוכחות, כך יהי רצון מלפניך כשיבואו בניו של יצחק לידי עבירות יכבשו רחמיך את כעסך ותעמוד מכסא דין ותשב על כסא הרחמים, וע”ז היתה השבועה.

Rak Oto (Only Him)–Lyrics and music by Idan Raichel, “Quarter to Six” (2013)

He in his way, I in mine

Him by himself

And as for me, what will become of me

I really wanted only him

And as for him – who knows what’s with him

He is full of good things

And he is full of hidden secrets

But I wanted only him

And as for him – who knows what’s with him

He in his way, I in mine

He follows his path

And as for me, what will become of me

I always walk next to him

And he passes on his way, on his own

And he is night and he is day

And he is full of little lies

But I wanted all of him

And as for him – who knows what’s with him

And he is hills and valleys

And he tells me tall stories

But I wanted all of him

And as for him – who knows what’s with him