When the music of the Beatles came to Israel, I remember trying to translate the song “Love, Love, Love” into Hebrew. It was impossible. I could not convey this distant, fresh, spontaneous Western word through the fairly archaic Hebrew language. I could not see that kind of love in our local, traditional word a-ha-vah (literally, “love” in Hebrew).
What does it take to understand a word? How old do you need to be? It’s more than a coming-of-age question for a sabra teenager.
While Hebrew has evolved for over two thousand years of history, it was only used as a vernacular since the 20th Century. To my generation it seemed to be no match for the freedom implied in contemporary pop culture.
Years passed, ahavah waited like any Eternal Truth to be seen, experienced and understood.
Several years ago Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote in Parabola about love. He called it the most used, misused and abused word and suggested that we’d better leave it alone and study compassion instead. But how can we? It is impossible not to try. We stumble and fall, and we try again. It is not up to us to give up once we set out on a path to find Truth.
Lurianic Kabbalah explains how the world was created: God contracted Himself through a mysterious unfolding, tzim-tzoom, to make room for something else that does not know Him. To make room for a creation in which we humans play a major role.
By the very act of withdrawal, attraction was created in the form of longing. Longing for things to return to their primal state, to the source, to the place where they were before; united with Av Ha-ra-cha-mim, the Father of Mercy, The Master of the universe.
Moreover, it was said that God’s initiating this movement to create worlds, came from an impulse called in Hebrew sha-ah-shu-ah; a certain kind of playfulness which implies “turning of one to another”, to allow an interaction between two partners: the Creator and that which does not know Him.
God Himself also has a profound longing for His creation. It was said in the Zohar: that it was His desire to have a dwelling place in the lower realms.
In B’re-sheet, Genesis, during the process of the creation of the world, it is said that God separated the water into two: sha-ma-yim, the water of above, and ma-yim, the water below. The Zohar, The Book of Splendor, a collection of works ascribed to Simon Bar Yochai of the 2nd Century B.C.E., goes on to say that the lower waters missed and longed for the higher waters and so cried out to unite back with them. The Hebrew words reflect this deep relationship: mayim, meaning waters, and shamayim, meaning sky.
God tried several times to create the world. He used equal measures of compassion, che-sed, and judgment, din. More than once the world collapsed until He incorporated an extra measure of ra-cha-mim, another word for compassion. Without love the world cannot exist, yet we humans were given freedom to love or not to love. God so wants to be known and be loved out of free will; forced love is no love at all.
When the angels in heaven saw what was happening, they raised an eyebrow. How come humans, who can disobey and mess things up, were granted such an important partnership, in fact, half of the Kingdom? How come, to this day, God will wait and wait for them to know Him and love Him?
The Hebrew language has gender; we refer to God in the masculine; although, in His true nature He is without gender. In the Tetragrammaton, YudHeyVavHeh, the unutterable name of God, the letters vav and heh represent the male and female forces of providence. The male force is that which acts upon the world, while the female force is that which allows the world to be receptive to God’s power. We refer to God as Him because we want Him to act upon the world through the male force of providence. The Hebrew word for Divine Presence, on the other hand, is She-chi-nah, a feminine noun.
Uniting these two forces is the central focus in celebrating Shabbat, from sundown Friday night to sundown on Saturday. This special day is the crown of creation, so beautifully described in the 15th Century sacred poem “Lecha Dodi”, “Let’s Go My Beloved”, written in the holy city of Tzfat by the Kabbalist Slomon El-Kabbetz.
Of the many expressions of ahavah in Jewish sacred liturgy, two prominent and profound Biblical texts are Shir Ha-shi-rim, The Song of Songs, and the great declaration sh-mah and v’-ah-hav-tah found among the Laws detailed in the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy.
Why is Shir Hashirim considered to be the holiest among all 24 books of the Bible? Simply, because in this sacred poetry we find that God wants us to be on fire with Him. Not to just engage with Him in an intellectual way. Not just to know Him abstractly, as an idea. God wants us to choose to love Him freely and passionately. In one of its profusely poetic lines, Shir Hashirim expresses the sacred bond:
“I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.”
It is not until the 10th Century B.C.E., during the reign of King Solomon who is traditionally credited as the author of Shir Hashirim, that the word ahavah bursts into full verbal, literal expression.
“By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but I found him not.” (3:1)
“…for strong till the death is my love…many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned…(7:6-8)
I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.(5:2)
“A locked up garden is my sister, O bride, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” (4:12)
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth for your love is dearer than wine”-1:2,3
According to the Zohar, love begins with a physical attraction, then communication and speech. A kiss is the merging of one breath with another. As closeness occurs, the lovers stop speaking and are merely aware of each other’s breath. Finally, they come even closer, to the point of physical contact, and their communication becomes a kiss. Here they are aware of each other’s life force. Kissing, explains the modern mystic Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, is a natural consequence of increased intimacy in speech . Two mouths come closer and closer, and progress from speech to breath to the kiss. The kiss, then, is the highest form of intimacy.
The Zohar describes four levels in the intimacy of love: physical attraction, speech, breath and the kiss. These same four levels exist in the relationship of a person with the Divine. These levels are to this day reflected in the structure of the daily services in the synagogue and private prayer, moving the worshiper from one level of intimacy to another. The impact is deeply profound when one’s ka-va-nah, intention, is aligned with the words.
Rumi and Hafez, among others, have adopted one of The Song of Songs’ central images: the Lover who appears and disappears and his lovesick.
“He brought me to the banqueting house and the banner over me was love. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples for I am lovesick.”2:4,5
Your lips drip flowing honey, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.”(4:11)
In Deuteronomy, D’va-rim, Moses, “The Servant of God”, lays the foundation for love when he conveys God’s utterances of the sh’mah followed by the v’ahavtah, both still recited twice daily by the observant ones. He embodies the revelations of how the people Israel individually and collectively will be with God.
So much can be accomplished with the first word: sh’mah, hear:
“Hear Israel The Lord is Ours The Lord is One”
The word sh’mah is composed of three elemental letters. The first two, shin and mem, are described in Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation, the oldest known Kabalistic text, as two of the three “mother letters”. The shin represents fire, a hot, chaotic state of consciousness more closely associated with ordinary mundane level of life. Mem represents water, a cool, harmonic state such as that which we seek through meditation.
The two first letters of the sh’mah teach us that true listening involves a transition from normal shin consciousness to meditative mem consciousness. The third letter of the word sh’mah is called ayin (a breathy “ah” sound). It is seen as presenting plurality in the mundane world. Combined, these three letters become the password that opens the door to the full experience of monotheistic love.
The sh’mah, then, is an affirmation of The Truth of love, a call to Israel, all who are aligned or wrestle with, or who sing to God. It professes that the Master is our Master. We are told to listen / hear, to be attentive to the ultimate unity of all, to the oneness in Life. Love of God is a consequence of listening to His message that He is ours and that he is One. This experience of His essence truth of unity leads to intimacy.
The v’ahavtah continues:
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might… And you shall teach / chant them diligently to your children and you shall discuss / speak about them when you sit at home and when you travel / walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall tie them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be t’fillin between your eyes. And you shall write them in mezuzzot on the doorposts of your house and on your gateways.” (Deuteronomy, 6: 4, 5)
Cleave to Him, always and everywhere. Make the declaration of the sh’mah visible. Accept and sustain this knowledge as a most precious legacy. This will lead to the experience of closeness and love towards and from God.
It is the patriarc and iconoclast Abraham, purported author of Sefer Yetzirah, who is led by God into a new place within himself so that he may begin a new relationship with the Divine. He enters into a partnership based on principles of justice, Laws of life, compassion and mercy. A relationship that draws forth the envy of heavenly angels. Something akin to a courtship between two engaged lovers:
Abraham looks at the stars above. He sees and experiences and understands. Kabbalah tells us he succeeds in “deeds of creations”.
God comes to him and says,
“Abraham My beloved”
(PARABOLA, Volume 35, Number 1 , Spring 2010: “Love”
1. The hyphen (-) in the Hebrew words divides them into syllables to assist with the reading.
2. A term given to native Israelis for their resemblance to a cactus plant which is sweet and juicy inside and thorny on the outside
3. “Love”, Parabola, January, 2007