Speaking to someone who had studied in Yeshiva(Rabbinical Seminary) for many years and has gone through intensive Talmudic training, I was shocked to hear what he had never learned. “You know what no one ever told me in my years in Yeshiva? No one told me God loved me.” We all need to feel loved. We all need to know we are not just serving an angry and alienated god that does not care about us. God does love us, and this lesson is so often neglected.
The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha:
”You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth.” Shocking.
Yes, God loves us; we are His people. We are holy to Him. We are chosen. Treasured. And yet, this is all packaged with a very strange fellow commandment. Do not cut yourself after the death of a loved one. While the thought of self-injury following the death of a loved one, this was common in the ancient world and is practiced by some cultures to this day. Tragically, these cultures often expect women to do this more often than men. An article from Emory University reports:
“The death of a loved one can be a traumatic experience and causes emotional pain and suffering. However, in some cultures the loss can result in physical pain as well. Certain cultures believe this physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. This can be seen in the Dani tribe in Papua, New Guinea. Some tribe members have cut off the top of their finger upon attending a funeral. This ritual is specific to the woman population of the Dani tribe. A woman will cut off the top of her finger if she loses a family member or child. The practice was done to both gratify and drive away the spirits, while also providing a way to use physical pain as an expression of sorrow and suffering. “
The Torah warns us not to injure ourselves in the process of death and grief, for we are Hashem’s beloved children. The pairing of the two—who do not seem to belong together—troubles many of the commentaries.
Rashi, the great ninth-century commentator, notes in his commentary to this verse:
“Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out.”
Fascinating. Knowing we are beloved by Hashem reminds us to treat ourselves with dignity and look nice at all times.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra(1089–c.1167), who lived around the same time as Rashi Spain, takes a different approach. He writes:
“Once you understand that you are children of God, and He loves you more than a father loves his child, then you will not cut your flesh over anything that He does, for everything that he does is good. Even if you do not understand it — as small children do not understand their father’s actions, yet they trust him — you should yourselves act likewise because you are a consecrated people…”
Knowing how much God loves us can help us accept the tragedy we have been through. Knowing how much God loves us should help us understand that painful though it may be, loss we experience is ultimately for the best. We don’t understand it now, we may never understand it, but a loving God has decided on it. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Rabbi Marcus, who has been through Auschwitz and Dachau when he was just 13. “We will never understand, there is no way to understand,” he said. We need to know that there is a reason, but we just don’t know it.
Nachmanides, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman from Girona, Spain, takes a different approach. He writes:
“And according to my opinion, that the understanding of “a holy nation,’ is that it is a promise of [eternal] life, it is saying, “Since you are a holy nation and special to the Lord… it is not fitting for you to cut yourselves or to make a bald spot for [the death of] a soul, and even if he dies in his youth.” But scripture does not prohibit crying, as nature arouses one to cry when friends part and wander [away], even when alive. And from here there is support to that which our Rabbis forbade to mourn more than is appropriate.”
In this reading, God’s love is referenced here to teach us of the life of the soul. Do not mourn excessively. God loves you, and the person you lost. Their soul rests with God and we must remember that. No loss is an eternal loss. The soul has been united with God.
Love can take many forms. We must remind ourselves and those around us of God’s love to each and every one. No one should be walking around wondering whether God loves them or not. Just because other religions—specifically Christianity—use this term often, it does not mean we can no longer use it. God loves each and every one of us.
This may mean that we must therefore treat ourselves with dignity, as noted by Rashi, or it may mean we need to change the way we look at others as noted by Nachmanides. It can also mean we should have a more optimistic outlook on life and the afterlife, but all agree we must remember this all the time.
So, to my dear friend, who never heard this from his rabbi: God does love you. You are His child. While no one may have told you this in your youth, it is never to late to remember. What can you do about all those years you weren’t told God loved you? Make sure you let as many people as possible out there know how much God loves them. Let them know they must treat themselves accordingly.