For the Love of God
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Or maybe it wasn’t really love, but you thought it was. Your heart would start thumping, your pulse would start racing when you saw that special person. Your face got hot and your throat was dry; if you were within speaking distance, all intelligent conversation fled from your brain. Your metabolism went haywire. You lost your appetite, lost all interest in food. You couldn’t concentrate on anything, couldn’t do your homework, couldn’t sleep, and when you did conk out you had wild, vivid dreams, and you kept waking up. Most of the time you were in agony, worrying about how you looked, and what you’d say, dying to know if he or she really liked you, and if you’d ever get together.
It’s exhausting – no doubt about it. But there’s nothing quite as exciting as falling in love like that – happily, miserably, desperately obsessed with the object of our desires. Years go by and we learn about other kinds of love. Love for a good and loyal confidant who comforts and encourages us when we’re down. Love for our parents that grows more poignant as we recognize their frailty and their limitations. Love for a brother or sister who shares the memories of our childhood and grows into a friend. Love for our family, or for dear friends who become like family.
The unexpected, totally inexplicable love that floods our heart the first time we hold our newborn baby; that insane adoration that makes us bore everyone around us with cute anecdotes and photos; that fierce urge to protect and defend; that powerful bond that holds us to our children even in the years when they scream at us and slam the door, so that we never, ever give up on them.
If we’re lucky, we may discover the love that comes about in a good, long marriage – a marriage, as Carolyn Heilbrun writes, between a woman “and the husband she has cherished, endured, and threatened to abandon over many years”; a marriage with passion at the core, but also mutual mellowness” earned by decades of understanding, accepting, and forgiving, again and again and again [From “The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty”].
Some of us learn about a love that goes beyond personal relationships. We may fall in love with an idea, with the discipline and excitement of learning, with a sport, with books or art or music or nature or science or religion, with a vocation that becomes the center of our life. We may, on occasion, experience what it is to love life itself.
Love, in all its varieties, is complicated, painful, confusing, utterly enriching. Without it, life is a colder and lonelier thing.
There’s another kind of love that we don’t talk about much, we Jews, though Christians seem to talk about it quite a lot. That’s the love between us and God. Even to say the phrase “God loves you” feels uncomfortable – mawkish, sentimental, even sappy. It sounds too human; it sounds unJewish; it smacks of the language of missionaries eager to smother us with an affection we want no part of. We may even, on some level, buy into the popular stereotype that characterizes the Jewish God, the “Old Testament” God, as angry and vengeful, while the God of the New Testament is loving, merciful and forgiving.
In our quest to create a modern, rational religion we may try to deny it – but the notion of a loving God is deeply Jewish; it’s embedded in our sacred texts. It’s all over the Torah. “The Lord! The Lord!” says Moses, in a phrase that we chant on every Jewish festival, “A God compassionate and gracious, patient, long-suffering, abounding in lovingkindness and truth…” [Ex.34:6].
It’s all over the siddur. We celebrate God’s love for us every week in our prayers. “The Lord appeared to me of old,” said the prophet Jeremiah [31:3], “saying, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’.” Ahavat olam ahavtich – I have loved you with an everlasting love. It’s from this phrase that a central prayer in our liturgy develops, the one we sing just before the Shema. “You might think,” says the Midrash, “that the love with which God loves us is for three months, or for two years, or for a hundred years. But it is a love for everlasting and for all eternity.” [Tanna d’bei Eliyahu; see Montefiore & Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology, p.63].
God loves us. Loves us abundantly. Loves us forever. Like the song says, “not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.” No question about it: it’s a hard idea to get our minds around. Can we possibly believe in such a love? Can we possibly experience it? And what about those other passages in the Hebrew Bible that talk about God's anger—what do we do with those?
The prayerbook gives us some straightforward answers about how we experience God’s love. It says that we know God’s love because we’re alive, because we can stand up and breathe, and can act with consciousness and purpose in a complex, exquisite and orderly world. It says that we experience God’s love by enjoying the gift of Torah – guidance in how to live, a glimpse of ultimate truth, the pleasure of intellectual and spiritual growth. It says that the universe, at bottom, is tov me’od – that beauty and goodness are possible in this world – and this is the ultimate sign of God’s love.
When times are good – when we’re bathed in blessings and the universe feels like a benevolent place, we may not give a moment’s thought to whether or not we are loved. We don’t often ask probing theological questions when everything’s going right in our world. But then, out of the blue, something goes wrong. We get sick. We’re in trouble. Someone we love is dying. We’re trapped by financial or emotional pressures. Life slaps us in the face, hard, and feeling dizzy and betrayed, we have a moment of spiritual crisis.
And suddenly the assurances in our Bible and siddur may begin to sound hollow and false. How can we believe that we’re loved by God in the face of illness, suffering or pain? “Too often," writes Samuel Chiel, “when we’re sick, we ask ourselves the question, ‘Why is God punishing me? I must have done something to deserve this.’ We search for reasons to blame ourselves, reasons why we’re being condemned to suffer“ [from “For Thou Art With Me: The Healing Power of Psalms”].
I remember having those feelings myself a few years ago, when I suffered a miscarriage. The physical pain was nothing compared to the emotional pain of feeling that I was somehow, obscurely, at fault – that the universe, somehow, had it in for me. Some months ago one of our members, an intelligent professional woman, sat in my office and wondered aloud if her child’s serious illness was a punishment for something that she, the mother, had done wrong several years before.
We have these thoughts despite our better judgment; we know that they’re irrational and hurtful, but often they rise up from some instinctive place deep inside us. Maybe we were raised with the notion of a harshly punitive God, a God who scrutinized every move we made and recorded all our mistakes. Maybe our own parents were strict disciplinarians who punished us severely, and we fashioned our ideas of God in their image. Or maybe we absorbed somewhere the idea that the universe is fair, that if you work hard and try to be a good person you’ll be protected from sorrow. So if something goes wrong in your life, it’s a reflection of some wrong that you did.
If we’re stuck with the notion of a vengeful, punishing God, then when suffering comes upon us we’ll either blame ourselves or blame God, saying “What kind of a terrible God could do such a thing?” It’s hard enough to endure the grief and anguish of illness or death without dealing with guilt, shame, or rage at the One who did this to us.
Against these beliefs, against these distorted and damaging ideas, we can set an ancient and profound Jewish teaching: that God is a Source of infinite love, comfort and strength when we are in trouble.
A few words of caution before we go further. If we use the words “love” and “God” in the same sentence, we have plunged into the world of poetry and metaphor. Our Sages recognized this. Maimonides, for instance, warned again and again that we shouldn’t take the words in our Torah and prayerbook literally. To say that God loves is not to say that God is a giant person who has the same kinds of feelings and emotions that we do. We can say nothing definitive about God, Maimonides said, because it’s impossible to define what is Infinite. When the Torah says that God loves, it simply means that we can experience God’s actions as loving.
The same is true of passages that speak about God’s anger. It’s not that God’s nostrils flare when God has a temper tantrum. We might understand these as passages that seek to arouse our conscience and stir us to action. We read about God’s anger, then, as a way of learning what behavior deserves our own moral outrage. As Rabbi Chiel writes: “God sounds a piercing siren when we are engaged – or about to engage – in conduct that is evil or corrupt, because it harms others, shreds the social fabric, or otherwise flouts ethical principles. A compassionate God wants us to hear [that] rebuke over harmful behavior so that we don’t diminish ourselves and hurt the people in our midst.” [p.148-9] The Torah speaks in the language of human beings; language is the only tool we have to express the inexpressible.
We should remember, despite the popular stereotype, that the Hebrew Bible is far more emphatic about God’s mercy than it is about God’s anger, and speaks more often about divine love than divine punishment. Ki l’olam chasdo, it says, again and again, in the Psalms. God’s lovingkindness is limitless, everlasting, unconditional.
But how can we know that love? How can we feel it? It’s not like the Creator of the universe can tap us on the shoulder and give us a big, warm hug. Or can He?
Some years ago, a friend of mine wrote these words about a crisis she’d experienced earlier in her life: “One of the churches I attended was open late at night, and I would go there around midnight after having been drinking. I was in despair, and I pleaded with God to help me, to bring me out of the despair, to love me. I wanted to know that God was there…I wanted to feel ‘spiritual.’ I paced and cried and screamed at God to help me. I shook my fist at God. I hurt inside and all I knew was that God was refusing to help me. I felt forsaken…”
To believe in a loving Presence in the universe is not to expect that when you shake your fist and cry out, a giant hand will reach down and rescue you. As one commentator has said, God is more like a compassionate witness than an omnipotent wizard. Even so, I don’t think my friend was alone and forsaken on that dark night; and I don’t think her prayer was in vain. My friend survived her dark night of the soul by rousing herself to get help for her drinking, by clinging to her family and friends and her church and her AA sponsor and her therapist and her doctor – a whole team of people who stood with her faithfully as she dragged herself on the long and painful road to sobriety.
Jews around the world are now reading the story of the Exodus – another story of crisis, another dark night of the soul. The Israelite people, groaning at hard labor in Egypt, cry out to God. And God responds and saves them – but here’s the amazing part: God does it through people. The brave Hebrew midwives who save the baby boys from death; courageous young Miriam who protects her baby brother; the compassionate daughter of Pharaoh, who rescues and cares for a Hebrew child; Moses himself, who overcomes fear and becomes a liberator; and especially the Israelite slaves – thousands of ordinary people who allow themselves to imagine a better future and break free from oppression.
All these people are channels for God’s loving power to enter the world. The redemption comes about because ordinary people rise to extraordinary heights of courage and compassion and strength. There is something implanted within us that stirs us to do these things. I call that something God.
Does it bother you to say that God loves? Does the phrase make God sound too simple, too human? Human beings, a Chasidic sage taught, are the language of God; they are the arms and the legs and the eyes and the mouth of God. Human beings do God’s work. They are the engine through which God transforms the universe. Life isn’t fair – but people can be fair.
Love is complicated, in all its varieties – sometimes painful, sometimes confusing, always enriching. And so it is with the love of God. Don’t expect to encounter a pair of giant arms that reach down to give you a hug. Prepare, instead, to meet God’s love in the arms of your parents, your children and grandchildren, your spouse, your devoted friend, even the stranger who steps into your life just when you need her most. In those precious relationships, we glimpse the meaning of God’s promise to us: Ahavat olam ahavtich – I have loved you with an everlasting love; My love is with you always. And even when the night seems darkest, remember: you are not alone.