Worshippers, a Love Story: Understanding the Jewish People’s Relationship to God
As we contemplate our connection to the Divine on the High Holidays, we should recall the reciprocal love at the heart of Judaism
After decades of wandering in the desert, Moses is told by God that he must die. Remarkably, he does not protest. Yet the decree feels so unjust: Moses is selected for a job he never wanted, and after struggling with a recalcitrant people and a demanding God, he must die before taking a single step in the land that was the goal of all his heroic exertions. Nonetheless, when told he cannot cross the border, Moses is more concerned with the future leadership of Israel than his own tragedy (Numbers 27:12).
The Torah’s silence over this apparent unfairness moves the rabbis of the midrash to imagine an extended dialogue in which Moses pleads before God. He reminds God of their time together and his fidelity to God’s mission. In moving passages, Moses recalls the closeness he and God shared in shepherding the people through Sinai. In the midst of the shattering reality of Moses’ death, there emerges a clear sense of something deep and sustaining. Midrash Petirat Moshe, the tale of the death of Moses, filled with heartbreak and the poetry of this most intimate Divine-human relationship, speaks vividly of a truth unstated in the Bible: Moses and God love each other.
When we are told at the end of the Torah that Moses and God saw one another panim el panim, face to face, we grasp the directness of love. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, is a paradigm for our own loving relationship with God.
Most Jews do not automatically identify God with love, but Judaism abounds with images of intimacy. Why does God choose Israel in the first place? Deuteronomy 7:7-8 tells us quite clearly that “The Lord chose you … because of love.” That the expression of God’s love seems capricious is not in the nature of God but in the nature of love: It is random, lavish, and maddeningly unpredictable. We can tame the wildness of the declaration by insisting that God loves all people, not only Jews. God is not a human being, whose love for one seems at times to preclude love for another. The theological truth that God is capable of infinite love does not dampen the powerful, unprovoked statement to Israel: You are loved.
Human love must always express itself in preference—my love for you distinguishes you from people whom I do not love. But Divine love can be real, powerful, passionate, and not exclusive. When the rabbis state, repeatedly, that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come, they are insisting on the nonexclusivity of Divine love. But equally they insist that God’s love for Israel is real, palpable, and enduring.
These declarations strike us as jarring, because English is a largely Christian language. “Faith” and “grace” and “love” have Christological connotations to the Jewish ear (and that’s the gospel truth). Once they are spoken in Hebrew, however, the affirmation of God’s love feels familiar. It is the deliberate design of the morning and evening service—preceding the Shema, we are told in the morning ahavah rabbah ahavtanu—with a great love You have loved us. In the evening, we declare ahavat olam—with eternal love You have loved the house of Israel. In response, right after these avowals, we say v’ahavta et hashem elokecha—you shall love the Lord your God. It is a love-saturated liturgy, and yet most Jews do not know that our tradition is rooted in reciprocal devotion.
Love is not an afterthought or an epiphenomenon of life. It is sewn into the fabric of the universe. Why did God create the world? According to Numbers Rabbah (13:6), God was lonely. Since Creation, God has craved closeness with us. We are told that, once the Mishkan, the tabernacle, is built, God will dwell among us. God’s loneliness in the midrash may be the spur for the first comment that God makes about human nature in the Torah: “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God knows absolute aloneness. The response to loneliness is love.
At a wedding you will often hear the phrase “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). Tradition teaches that the Song of Songs expresses the love between Israel and God. Rabbi Akiba spoke of the song as the holiest book in the Torah because this lyrical love captures God’s relationship to us. All of the Torah is encircled by the metaphor of marriage: Sinai was a huppah and the Torah is a ketubah, a wedding contract. We read the text as a love letter, musing over each turn of phrase, wondering why this was included and that omitted. The relationship between God and Israel is many things—a struggle, a tragedy, a triumph. But most of all, it is a love story.
We are God’s, and God is ours. Each morning, as the worshipper wraps tefillin around the middle finger, the betrothal verse from Hosea (2:19) is recited: “I betroth you to me forever.” Prayer is called avodah shebalev, service of the heart. We offer our hearts to God as to a lover each morning.
The rabbis of the Talmud expounded on this theme, counting the number of expressions of love God offered to Israel, including cleaving, longing, and desiring (deveikah, hafitzah, and hashikah).
Even suffering, at first glance the greatest argument against God’s love for us, is at times interpreted by the tradition as the very sign of that love. Yissurin shel ahava—sufferings of love, are a rabbinic explanation (one of many) for the variety of pain experienced in this world. In human terms, those whom we love often inflict some of the greatest pain in our lives; to love another is to be vulnerable to them and therefore, inevitably, at times to be hurt. There is no ardor without anguish. For the rabbis, love for God ensures that the pain of life, too, will be experienced as an expression of that relationship.
To be loved is to be the focus of another’s attention. The beloved is always in the mind of the lover. Sometimes the internal likeness is apparent and at other times a background accompaniment of life in the way that music hovers at the edge of consciousness. God is always with us: “You have searched me and know me” (Psalm 139). Such love is not only aware but eternal. On the High Holidays, God is called zochair kol haniskachot—the One who remembers everything forgotten. Such love does not fade with time or end with death. God’s love retains us in our fullness forever.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the times when Jews find themselves once again contemplating their relationship to God. It may be as difficult to see passion in reciting ritual or fixed prayer inside a synagogue as it is to see love in doing laundry inside a marriage. But Jewish law is the concrete expression of a lasting, ardent love. We act on behalf of those whom we cherish. As Jews, that means prayer, ritual, study, community, all the ways we open our hearts to the Almighty. When I go forth to seek you, famously wrote the poet Yehuda Halevi, I find you seeking me. God and Israel are lovers, devotedly reaching toward one another in a dance renewed in each yearning generation.
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