Love of G-d

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I have recently begun some Jewish study and ran into a question. In the Shema prayer it says you should love G-d. From all I’ve grown up with and understood about love, the kind of behavior called “love” doesn’t jive with G-d. I don’t see how my love for my girlfriend is what I should feel for G-d. I hope you understand my question.

Ian

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Dear Ian,

Your question is actually quite profound. You are pointing out a contradiction between the definition of love in popular culture to the concept of love that Judaism attaches to the Almighty. This contradiction is very real, there’s a wide, vast schism between the two definitions. 

In popular culture, love is something that “happens.” Two people meet, and “fall” in love. They didn’t, necessarily, do anything to create and build that love. Like a pit, which one “falls” into without any preparation, a forethought or hard work, love also is “fallen” into, by today’s definition. Love is also defined in today’s jargon as a physical act, which one “makes.” This act is called love even if those experiencing that act have never met before and may never meet again. 

These two modern uses of the word love, which you’ve grown up with, would certainly make it difficult to grasp love’s relationship to G-d.  

In Judaism, however, love doesn’t just happen. If it does, we say the emotions being felt are those of infatuation, not of love.

The true concept of love in Judaism is spelled out in the very word itself. The Hebrew for love is “Ahava.” The root of Ahava is “Hav”, which means “to give.” One attains love by giving. The more you give, the more you’re attached, because you begin to see more and more of yourself in the recipient of your giving. We love ourselves, and the way to love someone else is to see yourself in the other. The numerical value of Ahava is 13, the same value as the word Echad, meaning one. Through giving and love the two become as one. 

The physical attraction two people have for one another is an important step to enable them to grow to love each other. But it’s only a window to kinkle the desire to begin giving to each other of themselves. Only at that point does Ahava – the Jewish concept of love, begin to kick in. 

A great Jewish philosopher, Rabbi E. E. Dessler, elucidated this concept with a true story. A couple was separated in the holocaust, the father had the son with him and the mother was alone. She wept over them for years, hoping and praying for the day she would be reunited with her precious family. 

After the war, they were reunited, the mother doing all she could to reconnect to her son. She was very disturbed, however, to see that, despite all her tears and wishes, she did not feel the same intensity of love for her son as her husband did. When she approached Rabbi Dessler, he explained to her that love is the product of giving. Tragically, she was missing those crucial years of giving to her son during their separation. He assured her not to worry, and before long she would, with all the opportunities a mother has to give a child, her feelings of love would completely return.

The Shema tells us to love G-d. We need to foster a love relationship with G-d. The more we give of ourselves to Him, the more we will be connected and become as one. 

This love is a two-way relationship, one that gives us constant and eternal peace of mind and joy through our loving connection to the Almighty.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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