The Jewish people are instructed in the Torah to ‘do’ many things.
Keep the Sabbath. Give charity to the poor. Honor our mother and father.
These instructions make sense in the context of a self-improvement system for a people set aside from the nations of the world. Spending a day each week with family helps to keep us grounded. Giving charity to the poor helps to develop generosity, and honoring our father and mother teaches us humility and respect.
An instruction that is less clear is the directive to love our G-d. This central tenant of the Jewish faith is a directive to be in relationship with G-d. It is so central to being a Jew that the very first passage of the Shema prayer recited three times each day reminds us to love our G-d with all our heart and all our soul:
Veahavta et Hashem Elokecha Bechol Levavcha U’Vechol Nafshecha
(Love Hashem Your G-d with all your heart and all your soul)
This differs from other directives in the Torah in that the others are instructions to do something. Taken together over time, these action oriented directives are designed to help us to change and grow. The directive to love our G-d on the other hand, is an instruction to feel something. As it turns out, intentionally developing an emotion can be quite a bit more difficult than picking up a Lulav or giving charity.
Not Everything is as It Seems
The fact is, being in a relationship with G-d is a lot like Facebook: on the outside everyone’s doing amazing, but on the inside, it might be a little more difficult. Who hasn’t read the words in the Shema, directing us to love G-d with everything in us–and wondered how they could possibly do that when they are still upset about their alcoholic father’s abuse, or they can’t understand why G-d would put them in a position where they don’t know where this month’s rent is coming from, or they can’t comprehend a G-d who would strike their child with an illness.
The fact is, everyone—literally everyone—at one time or another experiences blockages that act as a barrier between their Selves and G-d. Moshe himself was in such a state when, in referring to Bnai Yisrael’s loss of straw that made their daily brick quota even more challenging , used the word Rah—a word that personifies an act whose very source is evil, the polar opposite of a G-dly act.
He demanded of G-d “Lamah Hareota LaAm HaZeh, Lamah Zeh Shelachtany? “why have you done such an evil thing to your people, why have you sent me to this thing?” Moshe’s words tell us that, at least in this regard, Moshe was no less human than the rest of us in experiencing a state that we all sometimes find ourselves in, blocked and prevented from experiencing “Love your G-d with all your heart and all your soul”, at least by the ‘simple’ definition that we use for the verb ‘Love’.
To Be Blocked is Human
The fact is, to be human is to experience blockages and barriers between one’s self and G-d. No less than the Adon HaNeviim, the Father of all prophets, Moshe Rabbeinu, went thru this human experience. How, then, are we to approach a relationship with G-d when we find it just doesn’t go? What are we to do when we read the words ‘Love Your G-d With all Your Heart’ and could sooner see ourselves on the moon than in such a state?
The Default is Unblocked
The Chinese have long had a view of human health as being holistic. That is, they view the systems of the human body as operating together cohesively in perfect working order. In their view, disease (literally dis-ease) only occurs when the flow of the system is interrupted, when blockages occur that prevent the human system from flowing the way it was designed. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart becomes occluded. A stroke happens when blood to the brain is interrupted. The default, however–the way we are born–is a perfectly flowing system that keeps man in perfect working condition.
So it is in our relationship with G-d.
The natural state of being is perfect relationship. It is only blockages that occlude our natural state of being, which is perfect relationship and flow with the Creator.
How Do We Find Our Way Back?
Knowing this, the first thing we must recognize in charting our path back to the Creator is that we are not carving new pathways, we are only trying to get back to our natural state of being.
But how do we actually find our way back?
The answer is hidden in plain sight and can be found in the profound prayer, Ahavah Rabbah, recited every morning before the Shema. This prayer is unusual in that the prayers up to this point in the morning service have been primarily praise of G-d, or requests for that which we need. Ahavah Rabbah, on the other hand, takes a very different tone in expounding on the profound love G-d has for us. It is unlike any other prayer in the morning service, before it or after it. (The same can be said of Ahavat Olam, the prayer said before the recitation of the Shema in the evening service).
The question is why? Why does it differ from the rest of the morning prayers, and why is it positioned just before the recitation of the Shema?
Ahavah Rabbah: Perfectly Positioned
Knowing the response Jews over the course of human history in various stages of personal and communal difficulty would have to the very first passage of the shema: ‘Love your G-d with all your heart and all your soul’, the Sages crafted and positioned Ahavah Rabbah before the Shema. The prayer, which opens and closes with the word ‘Ahavah’ (love), starts off by telling us: ‘Ahavah Rabbah Ahavtanu’, ‘with a great love did you (G-d) love us’. With this, the Sages hope to ease our way home by reminding us that in our relationship with Him, G-d has taken the first step towards us, that the default state of being is, in fact, a perfectly flowing system.
This opening reminder sets the stage for what follows. Later in the prayer, the Sages ask that G-d put in our hearts the ability to understand and comprehend the Torah– veten belebanu lehavin ulehaskel…et Talmud toratecha beahava. (“…And place in our hearts the bility to understand and comprehend…the learnings of your Torah with love).
But why in the heart? Doesn’t comprehension occur in the mind?
The answer is that the heart is the source of blockages in our relationship with G-d. It is our emotion—our pain and upset—that get in the way of relationship.
This passage, that the Sages wisely and compassionately placed in the prayer before the recitation of the Shema and its opening directive to love G-d—this explicit request that G-d clear our heart of the blockages in the way of relationship with Him–gives us the answer to the question “how can I be in relationship when I feel anger, hurt and pain?”
The way back to our default state of perfectly flowing being is to ask that the blockages preventing our natural, perfect flow be removed.
Could you imagine a relationship with another person where you are upset with them, or feel resentment towards them and ask of them “Can you help me unblock myself in my relationship with you?”
With the positioning of the ahavah rabbah before the shema, besides assuring us that every person experiences blockages, the Sages remind us that a relationship with the Creator is different than any human relationship we have ever experienced in that we can ask the very being we are seeking relationship with to open the pathway, to help us to remove the blockades, to clear the path to return to a genuine relationship grounded in love and affection.
The Secret to Becoming Unblocked
With this knowledge, we can take a second look at how Moshe navigated his way out of his blockage. When we look at how Moshe navigated his way out of his disbelief that he could follow G-d’s explicit direction to demand Pharoah release the Jewish people and his people could actually suffer more than before, we can learn at least as much about how to navigate our way out of our own blockages by what Moshe didn’t do as by what he did.
What Moshe did not do was remain silent.
Silent in his relationship with his G-d.
What Moshe knew was that in as much as G-d has taken the first step towards us in loving each of us individually, the very nature of any relationship makes it a two way street. By asking, even if angrily, “how could you do this to your people, to me?” he accepted upon himself his own part in the relationship and revealed to us that the secret to becoming unblocked is to remain in active relationship and that asking to be unblocked is in fact the secret to removal of emotional blockade.
A Hint of What to Expect
But there’s another, deeper aspect that Moshe’s experiences can teach us about the blockages that we will inevitably encounter over the course of a lifetime.
In growing up in Egypt, Moshe spent his life seeing the suffering of his people. He overcame his deep trepidation in going to speak to Pharoah and did exactly as G-d asked in demanding of Pharoh that he release the Jewish people. The result was that the suffering of his people actually increased. To Moshe, this appeared to be as unjust as could possibly be, and he reveals his feelings about the unjustness of the situation by using the word ‘Rah’ to describe it.
If the Torah is, in fact, a blueprint for the world, this sequence of events can teach us a great deal about what we can expect to experience in our own lives. Moshe’s experience tells us—no, it assures us–that we will inevitably experience events in our lives that seem utterly and completely unjust.
A sick child.
Being born into a family with an alcoholic parent.
Not knowing where the rent will come from.
These experiences–and our emotional responses to them–the Torah tells us via Moshe’s experience, will be an inevitable part of life. It is not a question of if we will have experiences that appear utterly unjust, it is a question of when. As humans, it is hard to understand exactly why such experiences are necessary for the tikkun olam, fixing of the world, but if we can discover a way to sufficiently humble ourselves and find our way back to a dialogue—any dialogue—even to go so far as to accuse G-d of evil–if we can hang in during our emotional blockage state to get back to a place where we can dialogue, and ultimately ask to be unblocked, we will be led to our own redemption as Moshe was.
Love Your G-d with Your Own Heart
Wherever we might find ourselves in our process of becoming unblocked, we must know one final thing. The directive ‘Love Your G-d with all your heart and soul’ is recorded with the singular ‘your’ (levavcha), not the collective (levavchem). This tells us that, although we are a single, cohesive nation, as individuals we are each in our own distinct processes when it comes to our G-dly relationship. We need not look over at our fellow Jew to see where they might stand, we need only turn our attention to our own individual heart.
This is true even if it means we are angry with G-d or even find ourselves in silence with Him. ‘Love your G-d with all your heart and all your soul’ will vary, often substantially, from one Jew to the next based on our own distinct life experiences, personality, even geography. ‘Love Your G-d with all your heart and soul’ is not black and white, rather, it is infinite shades of gray. At the end of the day, no matter where we might find ourselves, we must know our relationship with G-d begins and ends with ‘Ahavah’.