D’var Tefilah: Love’s Got Everything to Do With it!

What’s love got to do, got to do with it
What’s love but a sweet old fashioned notion
What’s love got to do, got to do with it
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken

Tina Turner

My sense is that most Jews tend to view the notion of a loving relationship between humans and God as a Christian concept. Yet I believe that reciprocal feelings of love between God and humanity are central to our belief system and the key to how we act in the world. The Ahava Raba prayer, which precedes the Shema, details how God has loved us. The first paragraph of the Shema follows, commanding us to love God. The Shema is taken from the Torah. But it is really hard to just love God. So, the rabbis added the blessing before it to tell us that God loves us.

Now maybe you believe, like Tina Turner, that love is overrated and should not be part of the process of how we understand our world. Perhaps you think that love is not powerful enough to overcome the evil and imperfections in the world. I point you to the great philosopher, Dumbledore, and this famous exchange with Voldemort:

“The old argument,” he said softly. “But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.”

“Perhaps you have been looking in the wrong places,” suggested Dumbledore.

One place to look is the Ahava Raba prayer, which is probably my favorite in the Shachrit service. It describes how love is critical to our relationship with God and how we live our lives. To me, the most meaningful part of the prayer reads, “And put into our hearts to understand and to be enlightened, to listen, to learn and to teach, to guard and to do, and to fulfill all of the teachings with love.” (This translation is mine, but you can find the prayer in Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 98.)

There is so much to say. First, it asks God to give our hearts the capacity to understand. Not our brains, but our hearts. There are many decisions I make every day that generate conflict between what my rational brain says and what my emotional heart feels. This prayer seems to be saying that we should gain understanding through the lens of our heart.

In addition, the line includes three pairings of words: to understand and be enlightened; to learn and to teach; and to guard and to do. It isn’t enough to be knowledgeable, to only be book smart and understand the theoretical. Our knowledge must also enlighten us, help us understand our world and impact our actions. As an educator and a parent, I have found that I learn a subject much better when I go on to teach it. Also, teaching involves human interaction. If we are blessed to have great knowledge, we are required to pass it on. To guard or to keep our tradition is great, but there is no true guarding without doing. Judaism is a religion of action. Mitzvot are things we do and many of them concern our interactions with our fellow human beings.

You may have noticed that one word from the quoted line remains unpaired. That word is lishmoah, to listen. Why? I like to think that listening to others is so important that we should not do anything else when listening. We should be 100 percent present. There are so many people in our world who just need someone to give them attention and validate that they are worthy of being heard.

Once we use our hearts to understand and be enlightened, to listen, to learn in order to teach, and to guard in order to do, then we can fulfill the mission of establishing God’s Torah in the world — with love. So, Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it? Pretty much everything. Love needs to be the driving force on how we understand our world, how we listen to people, how we learn and teach and how we keep and do mitzvot. Only through love can we truly establish Judaism’s vision of a world perfected in partnership with God.