Throughout history love is a major topic for poets and princes, realists and idealists. Sadly, many people whose knowledge of Judaism is superficial think of our religion as one of Law, and the competition, down the street peddle love. They’re wrong. Judaism majors in love. We just observe that love, like all profound concepts, is complicated. There is no better starting place to observe the intricate nature of love than by comparing the two versions of the second blessing of Kriat Shma, one from the morning and the other from the evening.
Now, I must insert a caveat: Many who daven the variations of our liturgy called Sephardic, don’t have the phrase AHAVA RABA, which is critical to my analysis of this issue. Although there are many aspects of Nusach Sefard which I find beautiful and moving, that they don’t use this phrase in their morning service I find regrettable, because the Talmud (Brachot 11b) introduces the phrase, AHAVA RABA.
So, what’s the difference between these two phrases? AHAVA RABA describes deep, intense love. AHAVAT OLAM describes constant, consistent love. As divorce rates testify, it is often easier to have short ardent loves than to maintain a consistently powerful love which endures.
During the period of the day when the sun’s rays grow and warm the earth, we feel this intense love for God, Who provides the times of great light and glory. Sunrise represents GEULA, redemption. On the other hand, as we discussed in my previous article (MA’ARIV ARAVIM) night epitomized GALUT (exile and disgrace). Nevertheless, we express our deep and abiding love for God even in the depths of darkness, at least before the spread of light pollution.
According to the Koren Hebrew siddur, the morning blessing is a thanksgiving for the bounty with which God has blessed us. While the evening blessing is more a prayer for Divine kindnesses yet to come. This phrase has been compared to the declaration V’HI SHE’AMDA (and that which has endured) from the Haggadah. No matter how dark the Diaspora, we continue to proclaim our faith in the eternal nature of our Covenant with God.
We continue this blessing with the source of our confidence in God’s eternal love, namely bestowing Torah upon us. This theme permeates both the AM and PM versions of the blessing. This also parallels the second paragraph of SHMA, where we discuss the acceptance of the yoke of Torah and Mitzvot.
The Vilna Gaon explained the phrase which introduces this theme: Torah and Mitzvot, Statutes (CHUKIM) and Ordinances (MISHPATIM), by noting that the general term Torah introduces the three facets of its teaching: Mitzvot, Chukim and Mishpatim. These three categories in turn represent (in order) Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. These three correspond to the Mishne: Upon three principles the world exists: Torah, Divine service (AVODA) and acts of loving kindness (GEMILAT CHASADIM, Pirkei Avot 1:3). In conclusion the Gaon explains: AVODA represents our relationship with God, GEMILAT CHASADIM corresponds to our relationship with our fellow man, and Torah describes how one relates to himself, and grows spiritually.
Since we appreciate this great Divine gift of the Torah, we declare: Therefore O Eternal, our God, upon retiring and upon arising we will NASIACH (discuss, meditate, concentrate) Your decrees, and we will rejoice over the words of your Torah and Mitzvot forever.
Since we recognize the infinite value of this gift, we will do our best to study and understand it. We commit to this endeavor both day and night. Plus, we experience a spiritual joy in this commitment. Many authorities assume that SIMCHA is an ethereal joy. Simcha is an enjoyment of the soul; bodily joy is described by words like GILA or RINA.
Once we have committed to this Divine quest to understand as much Torah as we can, we then declare: For they are our lives and the length of our days. The Vilna Gaon explains that Torah study is the purpose and goal of our physical life in this realm, but its effect also goes deep inside our being until it reaches our eternal souls. Torah study gives meaning to this life, but also prepares our innermost soul for the eternal life which exists beyond the grave for those who merit it.
We then declare the next level of our commitment to Torah study: and upon them we will NEH’GE (reflect, cogitate, deliberate) both day and night. Rav Soloveitchik emphasizes the importance of both daytime study and nighttime study. In terms of volume of material, the Rav assumes that daytime study will have a larger share, but in terms of depth, the night prevails.
The Rav reminisced about his youthful days in Khaslavitch, the small town where his father, Reb Moshe, was the Rav. There his father imparted to him the keys of LOMDUT (analysis) to truly understand any Torah issue, to struggle over a Medieval commentary or the very depth of a laconic comment in a Tosfot. The Rambam said that ROV CHACHMA (majority of Torah scholarship) came from nighttime study. The Rav understood that to mean: ROV CHACHMA is not measured by the number of Talmudic tractates studied, but rather by the depth of one’s Talmudic analysis (Derashot HaRav, 209-212).
We conclude the body of this blessing by declaring: May You never remove Your love from us. This phrase can be understood in two distinct ways, both are meaningful, but, as you will see, I prefer the second. One could say that this is a prayer or request for Divine love to always accompany the Jewish people throughout eternity. A worthy request.
However, a number of authorities see this concluding phrase as a declaration of our abiding faith in God’s assurances to the Jewish people that the Divine Presence will always accompany us through all time, and that there will be a Complete Redemption at the proper time. We are confident, even during the despair of the dark night, that You O Lord will never forsake us. We are not saying, ‘Please, Don’t remove the Presence. Instead, we proclaim, ‘We firmly believe that the Divine Presence will never depart from its place right beside the Jewish Nation!’
Fortified by this firm belief, we can say: Blessed are You, O Eternal, Who loves the Jewish people!’ And always will, because love is the bedrock of our relationship with God.