Greetings, friends! I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, despite the fact that we were not able to share it with our usual guests. I am grateful for the hospitality you have showed my fiancee Renana Friedman. She has enjoyed getting to know our members.
Perhaps it’s due to pandemic – or just the normal life of a Coulee Region rabbi – but I get some very interesting phone calls and e-mails just about every week. In the past week, a Christian caller asked how the Jewish community has been faring during the past 9 months, she is praying for us. I told her to pray for and when we felt things would get better. I responded that Judaism has survived over 3,000 years of challenges, yet continues to thrive. Jews are realists, but also optimists, I told her. I also said our faith in G-d is strengthened the more we are faced with. She said she will continue to pray for us, and for all our society.
Last week, another correspondent posed a question which would make anyone think. Here is how it went:
Writer: Hi Rabbi Brian, tell me, Why is it so important to love God?
Rabbi Brian answers: _______, thanks for asking. This is a question whose answer could fill many books, and it already has!
But I guess you just want the short answer? You asked a short question, so I will try to answer it briefly. Much of Jewish law – mitzvot – and many rabbis and Torah commentators focus on the importance of emulating G-d. Not becoming G-d, but rather reaching for higher aspirations, for higher levels of behavior.
If we are to become “like G-d”, what does that mean? We are given examples…G-d loves animals, so it is a Torah mitzvah to treat animals well, to take care of injured animals, lost animals, suffering animals etc. (Tzar baalei chayim)
We are told many times that G-d loves us, we are G-d’s people.
That love is reciprocal…we love G-d, and G-d loves us.
I am not so sure that G-d needs our love, but I know for sure that we need to be loved, by G-d and by each other.
Judaism does not have a corner on G-d’s love…G-d loves ALL humans. Judaism just gives us a method of expressing it…
G-d’s love is expressed in Torah and in Jewish prayer, especially in the Shema. In the Shema and its accompanying paragraphs, we are told to “love the Lord your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might”. We are also told how to show that love, by teaching these words to our children, to say the words (at least) twice each day, to wear them in our tefillin that we put on our arms and heads, and to put them in the mezuzot on our doorposts.
In exchange for that love, says the Shema’s second paragraph, G-d will provide sustenance and success for ourselves and our families. It also says we must not worship false gods. If we do, we will suffer loss of that sustenance.
We acknowledge that this ONE G-D is the same being who brought the Israelites out of slavery to freedom.
The prayer ends, “I am Adonai your G-d, who is Truth.”
I hope that answers your question.
____, I would like to know YOUR answer…as a Jew, why is it important for YOU to love G-d?
Writer: Rabbi Brian, I am looking to find the answer to what is in it for me I’m loving God. And I think you answered it: we are to love God because in exchange for that love, says the Shema’s second paragraph, G-d will provide sustenance and success for ourselves and our families. That is a pretty good deal.
…Ok. I want to love God with all my heart, souls and mind. How can I go about making myself love God?
Rabbi Brian: Hmmm, Before you asked “why”, now you want to know “how”? This is a very interesting question. It is what may have caused many to break away from Judaism 2000 years ago.
Judaism has always taught that it is not enough to just believe in G-d. Jewish law says you must perform as many of the laws – the mitzvot given in the Torah – as much as possible.
So, Jews are required not only to believe, but also to DO. In earlier times, this meant following all the laws of eating Kosher foods, and keeping a Kosher home. It meant observing the Sabbath. Some are laws we cannot follow today, like bringing sacrifices to Jerusalem, of course.
But so many other laws can be followed to some degree today.
Judaism requires action, not just words of love or words of belief.
These actions are called mitzvot, commandments which are also often translated as “good deeds.” More than commandments, these obligate us to do such things as helping immigrants, feeding the poor, helping orphans and widows. Loving your neighbor, not just love, but through your actions. Loving peace and pursuing peace.
And yes, following as much of Jewish law as you can comfortably live with.
I am doing what I can to help others, I told the writer. I get calls for help every week. People who are ill, lonely, depressed, unemployed. People who want prayers for their own healing or for their friends or relatives.
Judaism is a community religion. It is very hard to practice it alone at home. People miss seeing each other and hugging each other every week.
For 8 months, I have conducted services on Zoom, funerals on zoom, baby namings on Zoom, trying to keep the rituals and holidays going, and keeping us together as a community.
To answer your second question, there is no better way to show your love for G-d than by helping others, through acts of charity, feeding them, clothing them, finding them shelter, loving them.
I hope that helps.
Writer: So, how do I feel love for G-d, and how do I know that G-d loves me?
Rabbi Brian: This last question is the most difficult. I don’t know anything about your feelings for anything, let alone for G-d. I don’t know what interests you or motivates you. Perhaps this is a subject for future discussion, not long e-mails.
I can only tell you about my own feelings.
Whenever I experience joy in my life, or a degree of happiness, or a positive outcome, or a simcha or other happy event, I associate those feelings with G-d and with connections to the Divine.
For me, the feeling of being in love is certainly one of those holy feelings.
When I help others, the warmth and connection I get from others is the same.
For example, before the pandemic, I volunteered a number of times at a nursing home in Saint Paul. We often took the residents on field trips, to the Mall of America, to arboretums, to the zoo. They were so happy to be outdoors and so grateful for the help.
I have never been so happy as seeing the looks on their faces. It always brought me such great joy. I felt the payback was immediate. To paraphrase Ya’kov in this week’s Torah portion, G-d was present in that place.
Helping build homes at Habitat for Humanity gave me the same feelings.
Also, I have put on tallit and tefillin almost every morning for the past 25 years. Over the past 8 months, I have been praying each morning with a group of 20-30 people in a Zoom service.
That is also a terrific and holy feeling every single morning for me. I feel G-d’s love in those moments.
You may want to determine what makes you happy first, and go from there! Only you can determine that.
Writer: Thank you, Rabbi Brian. I appreciate all your responses. The best answer I have found out is to ask God Himself to help me love Him, because I can’t do it myself. I can only be willing.
Friends, this kind of conversation is what makes me love my work as a rabbi, and keeps me going.
I hope you have all have a blessed week, as we move into Kislev and the month of the Holiday of Lights.