David Walk

Love and Learning-Shma Pt. 6

The first blessing of the three surrounding the recitation of the SHMA is about God the Creator, Who continues to relate to and care for the Cosmos. Now the Sages turn our attention to God’s relationship to us the Jewish people. Rav Sack’s Z”L refers to this as ‘moving from cosmic grandeur to spiritual intimacy’. So, the second blessing which precedes the SHMA is about both God’s love for the Jewish people and the token of that love, the Torah.

In these articles, I’ve mostly avoided the discrepancies between the Ashkenazic and Sefardic rites, but here I can’t avoid the glaring difference. Both Nusach Sefard and Eidot HaMizrach begin this blessing, both morning and night, with the phrase AHAVAT OLAM (Eternal or Universal Love), while the Ashkenaz version begins this paragraph in the daytime with AHAVA RABA (Immense Love).

This debate is based on a Talmudic discussion (Berachot 11b). There is an argument over how to begin this blessing. Rav Yehuda and Rav Elazar suggest AHAVA RABA (which is supported by a BRAITA), while the Rabanan state that it should be AHAVAT OLAM. The Ashkenazic rite included them both, while the Sephardic rite opted for just the concluding statement. That’s a shame.

I really like declaring that my love for God is both extensive (OLAM, everywhere and everywhen) and intensive (RABA, great, deep and profound). Plus, I appreciate that, perhaps, our love for God is clearer in the daylight, representing redemption, than it is in the darkness, a symbol of exile. Things do go ‘bump’ in the night.

Either way we declare that God’s love for us is very great, and furthermore God has shown great CHEMLA, ‘mercy’, ‘compassion’ , ‘concern’. The Vilna Gaon explains that the first phrase is three stages: 1. AHAVA; love for the Patriarchs; 2. RABA, love shown at the Exodus; 3. AHAVTANU, the love at Har Sinai. Then God displayed CHEMLA, which our Divine Parent CHAMALTA. The Gaon asserts that happened in the two pardons granted to our ancestors; first after the Sin of the Golden Calf and then at the sin of the Spies.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik comments on this powerful beginning to our blessing by declaring: Anyone who says that Judaism commands the individual to love God, but does not promise him reciprocal love is a heretic. Wow! That is an uncharacteristically harsh statement, which shows the Rav’s passion for the subject. As proof the Rav quotes half a dozen verses, and concludes with the words of the CHAG Amida: You have chosen us from all the nations; You have loved us and have desired us.

We then turn to God with a request: Our Parent, our Monarch, for the sake of our ancestors who had faith and trust in You, and to whom You taught rules (CHUKIM) of life, be gracious to us and teach us.

The Abudraham explains this request by explaining that the BITACHON (faith and trust) displayed by our ancestors is a reference to the verse: I remember your devotion when you were young, as a bride-when you went after Me in the wilderness, an unplanted land (Yirmiyahu 2:2). Then the ‘rules of life’ are described by the Abudraham as the Torah which has in it ‘CHUKIM (laws we don’t know the reasons for) and Mitzvot, concerning which it is said: For they are life to those who find them (Mishlei 4:22).

Again, we turn in supplication to God and say, ‘Our Parent, our compassionate Parent, the ever compassionate, have compassion upon us’. That’s a lot of compassion! First, we emphasized AHAVA (by repeating it), then CHEMLA, and now RACHAMIM (compassion and empathy). Please, remember that this Hebrew term for feelings for another derives from the word RECHEM, womb. We recognized God’s love and concern for us at the opening of the blessing, now we beg for God’s parental concern for our wellbeing.

This appeal for parental care is an introduction to the main topic of this paragraph, namely Torah study. In other words, we preface our long call for assistance in acquiring Torah with a reference to parental concern, because we turn to our parents for our most basic needs. It’s as if we’re saying that Torah is to the Jewish People as mother’s milk is to the rest of humanity. Next week when we discuss the end of this blessing, we will talk about Jewish survival and return to Eretz Yisrael. In other words, we make clear that Torah is our only hope to attain the future we fervently pray for.

So, we begin the multi-step quest for Torah:

Instill into our hearts the ability to understand and elucidate; to hear, to learn and to teach; to observe, to perform, and to fulfill all the words (precepts, ideas) of Your Torah with love.

I believe strongly that this insistence, almost a demand, for God to help us in the quest for Torah divides into three parts. The first section is about what’s going on in our heart. Remember, please, that in antiquity the heart was the seat of intellect. We are supplicating our Divine Parent for the inner strength, character and ability to take on the challenge of Torah study.    

I once interviewed a candidate for conversion who began life as a Methodist, and eventually became a Catholic priest. He seemed a stable, reasonable individual, so I asked, ‘Why?’ He answered, ‘My Methodist teachings seemed like a placid pond. Then I encountered Catholic theology and sensed a raging river. Finally, I was introduced to Torah and found an infinite ocean. I want to sail that surging sea.’

We begin to beseech God for the fortitude to face the challenge of Torah study. We need intellect (LEV), analytical skills (HAVANA) and, eventually, the ability to see how the pieces fit (HASKEL) into a bigger picture.

Then we understand that the process is not a lone voyage. We need to pay attention, observe, and understand those whose shoes we wish to fill (LISHMO’A). Next we must apprentice to a mentor to truly understand their path (LILMOD). Finally, the test of learning is to communicate it to others (LILAMED). Reb Chaim Brisk said that if you can’t explain it, you haven’t really learned it.

So, what do we do with all this accumulated wisdom? Apply it! We guard ourselves (LISHMOR) from transgressing any negative precept. We also perform all the positive Mitzvot. By working hard at both avoiding the negative and performing the positive we achieve a stable structure (L’KAYEM). We need all these steps to make our Torah edifice last the ravages of eternity.

Next week we will discuss the fruits of these efforts.


About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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