It’s no secret, really. The purpose of human life, the reason we are here is this: To expand and enjoy our capacity to give and receive love. The goal is easy enough to state. It’s getting there that is the challenge. How do we improve our ability to give and receive love?
Consider the prominence of the Shema: “Hear O Israel, ….You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, soul, and might…” Although, last month I went out to Boulder to hear the author of our community-wide book-study book, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas, Rabbi Arthur Green, give a talk, and he suggested a different translation for that line. He reads the verse as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Instead of “You SHALL love with your whole heart,” he suggested that (if we do as instructed above) “You WILL love with your whole heart!” as a matter of course. OK. I’ll bite. So what’s the ‘instruction above?’
In a word: Learn. Here’s what the prayer prior to the Shema, ahavah rabba, says:
With a great love, you love
With great compassion, you care
Our mothers and fathers had such trust in you
That you taught them holy ways of living.
Be gracious with us too, and teach us.
Show compassion by placing into our hearts —
to understand and to wise up,
To listen, to learn and to teach,
To safeguard, and to do, and to perpetuate with love
Every word of your Talmud Torah.
Notice a theme? Learning goes with loving.
What else did you notice?
I’d like to point out a few curiosities about this prayer.
First, did you notice that a word or something seems to be missing? I put a “—“ after “our hearts” as a placeholder. In our Kol Haneshamah Prayerbook, the translator slips in the English phrase “the ability to,” but the Hebrew leaves a yawning gap there. It’s as if the siddur wants us to stumble, to slow the gait through the service and open the gates of wonder and curiosity. Huh? Wow! Why?
Second, in the last phrase wouldn’t we expect to read “every word of your Torah,” highlighting the significance of each word in the Torah, the importance of scripture. And yet, an unexpected word, talmud, is thrown in confusing an otherwise sensible sentence. Talmud has come to refer to the volumes of law and lore collected over five centuries prior to 700 CE and forming the basis of what can be referred to as rabbinic Judaism – a civilization centered around synagogues, scriptures, services, tzedakah, and study rather than altars, animal sacrifices, purity, and priests. And although ‘The Talmud’ is a bank of books, the word talmud simply means ‘learning,’ or more accurately, ‘learning-and-teaching.’ That one-word insertion shifts the focus from the words of the scroll to the process of learning-teaching-and-applying the Torah. The words of Moses and the prophets have power, yes, AND, it is our words of dialogue that are being celebrated here. Sanctity (and love) finds fullest expression primarily in the process learning-and-teaching rather than in the words that we happen to be studying.
Perhaps these two curiosities about this prayer can help explain a third. The founder of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, spent more than 40 years teaching at the seminary that trained rabbis for the conservative movement. According to his detailed journals, though students flocked to his classes, colleagues and the administrators there did not make life easy for him. He was pressured to leave and accused of being a radical, heretical atheist. “Ironic,” students of his relayed, “since he was the only professor in the entire school that began every class with a prayer!” Which prayer did he use? This one.
Classes every week, Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons, Saturday mornings.
As well as fabulous one-in-a-lifetime (or year) opportunities, like Sunday afternoon, April 10 for a “Writing as Spiritual Practice” workshop with a fabulous Diesenhoff scholar-in-residence, Amy Frykholm from Leadville. The annual social (and fundraising) event at the Wild Game on April 2. Rat Pack Purim on Wednesday night, March 23, learning and loving through parody, laughter, irreverence, costumes, and even intoxication. Passover Seder, Saturday night, April 23rd, experience freedom as we learn more about one another and relive our shared exodus. So many great opportunities. Get Curious. Show the love, feel the love, practice love through learning and curiosity.