A Loving God

May 31st: Bechukkotai
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though our Tradition speaks of God’s love for us, this Divine love is not something we always remember. In a world filled with doubt and uncertainty, the teaching that the Divine has an emotional attachment to each and every human may seem more theoretical and theological than real. And yet, we are taught that God’s love for us is overwhelming—overflowing! In the morning service, just before Shema, we pray: “Ahavah rabbah ahav’tanu, Adonai Elohaynu, chem’lah g’dolah viterah chamal’ta alaynu: With a great love have You loved us, O Lord our God, and with enormous and overflowing compassion have You cared for us.”

The parallel prayer in the evening service also speaks of God’s love for us: “Ahavat olam bayt Yis’ra’el am’cha ahav’ta. With eternal love do You love Your people Israel.” Of particular note is how both of these prayers proceed to speak about the ways that God shows this love. Oh yes, there is an emotional feeling when love is involved, but real love always has behavioral manifestations. God’s love, according the Tradition, is expressed in a number of ways. The evening prayer explains: “Torah and mitzvot, laws and precepts have You taught us.” And, in the morning version, “For the sake of our ancestors, who trusted in You and to whom You taught the laws of life, may You also grace and teach us. O compassionate One, have compassion upon us and help our minds to know, understand, listen carefully, learn, teach, guard, observe, and lovingly maintain all the words and teachings of Your Torah.” In other words, God’s love is shown to us by revealing ways for us to live good lives. This is the significance and purpose of the Torah.

In our Torah portion this week, God promises other behavioral manifestations of love. In Leviticus 26.11-12, God specifically offers a sense of Divine Presence: “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.”

The Torah describes the nature of God’s Presence and blessings in agricultural terms: “I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” (Leviticus 26.3-5) In other words, God’s Presence is to be felt in tangible blessings.

The post-Biblical Judaism of the Rabbis continues this sense of God’s Presence and adds other manifestations. An example is the Amidah whose nineteen blessings—seven on Shabbat—express a wide range of the blessings with which God loves us. Consider the topics. God is our Shield and Help and gives us eternal life. God is holy and is the source of knowledge. God both desires our repentance and forgives us—and makes our lives meaningful. God heals our bodies and spirits and provides us sustenance. God remembers and helps the oppressed, loving justice and righteousness and working to remove evil from the earth. God is the support of the righteous. God builds Jerusalem and plants the seeds of our redemption. God listens to our prayers and is present for us in Jerusalem and every place. God is generous and worthy of our appreciation. And, God is the source of peace. The point is that each manifestation of God is loving gift, and praying is our way of acknowledging this Heavenly love.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro approaches this same attitude in his prayer poem, We Are Loved by an Unending Love, speaking of God’s love as expansive and sometime coming unexpectedly:
We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us
even when we are hidden from ourselves.
We are touched by fingers that soothe us
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
        even when we are too embittered to hear.
We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us
even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us
          even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled...
Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;
We are loved by an unending love.”

A religion and civilization as complex as Judaism can be viewed in many different ways. We have been accused of being an overly legalistic tradition, and there are indeed lots of laws and rules and procedures. However, also included in our covenantal relationship with God is a deep and profound affection. Lest we focus only on the history and laws and technicalities, our Torah portion reminds us that God loves us, and that affection is part of God’s essential nature and of our reality. We are loved.