By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Love, a strong inner movement to come closer to something or someone, is the first of the soul’s seven powers that make up our character. It is the prime emotion needed to strengthen a relationship and override hesitations. Understanding how emotions play out in our tangible human relations also helps us realize the less visible but ongoing interchange with ourselves, and with G-d.
To begin, love can be divided into three components: The person who feels love, the emotion itself that is experienced, and the object of affection. Which of these three is the most dominant feature will determine the nature and endurance of the bond.
Often, one’s conception of love is distorted, whereby the main emphasis lies in the emotion itself. In other words, some people may be so concerned with subconsciously monitoring the revealed love in the relationship — do I feel it or not, and to what extent — that they may forget about the beloved. Such love inevitably leads to a temporary bond dependent on the person’s state at the moment.
Real enduring love, in contrast, focuses primarily on the beloved. Put differently, every emotion contains a core statement. The statement within authentic love is that the other is precious, which prompts attention and respect. In this sense, you must earn the ability to reveal true love even more so than the other must earn that feeling from you through their behaviors. And while we cannot always control the movements within the heart, which run wild in all directions, we can steadily work to get the mind straight, which then influences how we feel.
Maintaining and increasing love boils down to how well you can pay attention to the details — listening, gaining an appreciation of unique qualities, recognizing their contributions to our lives for which we must be eternally grateful, and simply striving to understand the other. This focus naturally feeds the fiery feelings. But the strong emotion in the present moment is only a means to create a more eternal bond by fulfilling the desires of the other.
In this sense, it is not the love itself that is most revered, but the beloved. And when the experience of love is centered on a commitment to the beloved, the resulting feelings can propel you closer to eventually merge completely. That’s why the Hebrew word for love (ahavah) and the word for “one” (echad) are numerically equivalent.
Now, when it comes to loving G-d — a biblical commandment — arousing this emotion becomes trickier. There is no tangible interaction taking place. It is easy to go about our business and forget completely about the big picture. Here again, refining the mind to then experience a personal connection requires some contemplation. And for this we have a special mitzvah, twice daily, that entails a moment of meditation and declaration: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The instruction to “hear” in the above verse also means to contemplate an idea until it crystallizes within the mind. And comprehending G-d’s unity is the most fundamental principle in Torah and sacred Jewish texts.
From the top-down, this oneness entails acknowledging an essentially indivisible and infinite power that transcends all limitations of time and space. The best Hebrew term for this complete and wondrous oneness is “yachid.” But we work from the bottom up, situated within the physical world. We look at the world around us, observe the multiplicity and variance, and have the task of mentally unifying the parts, realizing that everything that we see was brought into being by one Creator and is somehow connected. In this context, the appropriate Hebrew word is “echad.”
Maimonides explains layers of meaning behind the word “one” (echad) as it applies to the mitzvah of unification. Each step has a possible mental mistake that it negates. The most basic level is to understand that there is only one, as opposed to two or more deities. All other entities throughout the cosmos are only instruments or messengers, possessing no independent sovereignty. A deeper layer — noted in the 13 principles of faith — is oneness removed from all physical forms, a non-composite unity as opposed to a collection of parts. And the highest level is “the one and only”: the essence of everything — “there is nothing else.”
Even the straightforward instruction in the code of Jewish law explains that when one meditates while saying the words “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is ONE” — the intent is to visualize the three Hebrew letters, as they numerically spell echad, from left to right: 4, 8, 1 (four directions + seven heavens and earth, all of which are nullified to the letter alef, signifying the guiding master of the world).
Taken together, contemplating the unity captured in this phrase involves internalizing the sole source of existence, the intimate involvement that brings harmony in nature, and the personal guidance of how G-d’s benevolent providence extends to every individual and all their encounters. Each creature is enlivened and sustained according to its composition and needs — there’s an ongoing personal relationship, not some removed supervision from on high.
And just as a person is concerned about their well-being, their soul and breath that fuels the body’s movements, we can come to feel a love based on detecting the very source for all life.
Physical and spiritual exodus
When it comes to Jewish tradition and observance, our relationship with G-d begins with the Exodus from Egypt — being transported from the depths of servitude and exile to eventually become “a holy nation” — which is the most reoccurring theme in the Torah. The path to freedom begins with the plagues in this week’s reading. But the reminder of the spectacular journey to freedom is placed throughout our prayer books, at the prime stages of communion, which also fulfills the obligation to verbally recall the Exodus event every day.
At first glance, although this event marks the basis for the Jewish people, it happened thousands of years ago and seemingly doesn’t possess much relevance to our current circumstances. But the commentaries explain that, in addition to recalling the miraculous history, which provokes intense gratitude for our current existence, there is also a spiritual exodus taking place every day: a process of internal freedom that imitates the collective historical experience.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, “mitzrayim,” is from the same root as confinements. Coming out of Egypt, therefore, connotes breaking free of all barriers within our personal world. The key moment occurs when we say the opening words “Hashem is one” during the Shema. The esoteric texts relate that uttering this phrase, while internalizing the abovementioned unity, allows the divine soul to emerge from its concealment within the “serpent’s skin” — the body and layers of physical and mental coverings — and to break free inside the person.
So, every day, twice a day, the reflection on G-d’s unity (and subsequent recollection of the Exodus episode) helps us open the channels to experience a love that is then fulfilled in a life of good deeds.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.