If all the Jews in the world were assembled and each one was asked to name his/her favorite Hebrew prayer, I am guessing that the majority would vote for the “Shema”, the credo of our Jewish faith which proclaims the one-ness of our God.
I really don’t like being in a minority but, if asked, my reply would be “Ahava raba ahavtanu…”, with abounding love hast Thou loved us, O Lord our God…. which precedes the “Shema”.
In it, we thank our God for granting us His gift of Torah. We ask Him to grant us mercy and to give us an understanding heart in order that we may listen, teach, protect, perform and fulfill all the Torah’s teachings with love (ahava).
We ask that our hearts may be attached to God’s commandments so that we may love and revere His holy Name. And the prayer concludes with the emphasis on love (ahava).
“You have chosen us from every people and language and You have brought us close to Your great Name forever in truth, to offer praises of thanks to You and to proclaim Your Oneness with love (ahava). Blessed are You, O God, who chooses His people Israel with love (ahava).” (English translation courtesy of the RCA Siddur, Kol Yaakov).
In that one short prayer I find the very essence of Judaism. It is contained in one word: ahava…love. When we can love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our might we have fulfilled the mitzvot of the Torah. The 613 mitzvot can be encapsuled with the word ahava.
Various translations of the Hebrew Bible differ in the number of times the word “love” appears, ranging from 131 times to 317 times. The word is most commonly used to express the love between husband and wife or, as in the case of the prophet Hosea, to describe the love of God for Israel.
An entire book of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible is dedicated solely to the love of God, albeit described in erotic poetry praising the love of a king for a beautiful young maiden. Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) is a magnificent tribute to the nature of love, mostly Israel’s love for God and His love for His chosen people, Israel.
The ability to love requires thought, feelings, contemplation, an examination of our heart. Interestingly, the Hebrew word “ahava” from the verb “le-ehov”, has a two-fold translation. It means “to like” and it means “to love”. We may “like” ice cream but we “love” our family. The word is best understood in the context of what is being expressed.
When we can truly love… “v’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha”… loving our neighbor as ourselves… we are fulfilling the commandments from the heights of Sinai which teach us not to kill, not to steal, not to covet.
The daily prayer of “ahava raba….” is a road-map which can guide us in the paths of righteous living. For that reason, I find it to be my very favorite prayer. When I am stressed, depressed, worried, frightened, I turn to that prayer in the siddur. It helps me to re-connect with my God in love.