Last time I wrote about the intense and subtle artistry of the first prayer before the Shema (in the evening prayers). The prayer that follows it, ahavat olam, is another heavy-duty beauty, with meaning to spare.
One hidden-out-in-the-open idea in this poem reflects a crazy combination of faith and fear, or confidence and insecurity.
It begins, "You have loved your people the Children of Israel with an eternal love." What does it mean for God to love us? Well, the prayer doesn't say. But it suggests what that love looks like from our end: "Therefore, Adonai, our God, when we lay down and get up we will talk about your laws and we will be happy about the words of Your Torah and Your commandments - forever."
So, whatever Divine love means, we experience it by spending our time thinking about and talking about the meaning of our lives. According to the prayer, that's what it feels like to be loved by God: you meditate on the purpose of your life.
And remeber, we opened with an assertion that this will last forever. I like to understand this as saying that our lives will always be filled with meaning. God might take away everything we can touch - money, relationships, Doritos - but God will not remove our sense of meaning and purpose, because God loves us with "an eternal love." And we are emphatic about this because we then say that we will "talk about" and "be happy about" God's commandments (what I'm caling our meaning) "forever" [I've bolded the phrases above to show that they're the same word in Hebrew: olam. So, no matter what happens, we'll be 'ok' and will always have a sense that on a deep level, life has meaning and purpose.
But then, like a high-school Romeo in the third week of love, we become insecure. In the very last line of the prayer before the concluding blessing, we see "Never take away Your love from us." [Again, bold because it is the same word: olam - well, actually olamim, a variation].
What? We open the prayer saying that God loves us with eternal love. Eternal, as in always. And then we say that we will experience this in a happy way, always. This sounds good. As in, no problem, lots of love to go around - nothing to worry about.
But then, at the end, we do worry: "Never take awy Your love from us." What does this line say about the first line? Or about us? Does it mean that Divine love isn't really eternal? If so, why would we worry that it would be taken away? How could it be if it's eternal? Does it mean that it is eternal, but we are so neurotic that we can't really handle that, can't accept it?
In other words, we close this prayer with a desperate plea: please don't make our lives a drag in which we have nothing meaningful to think or talk about, in which we have to listen to Sean Hannity endlessly. Please don't let me come to believe that "90210" is all there is to think about.
This is a prayer for this time. The collapsing economy has a lot of people frightened. I've spoken with many people who are living with a deep sense of insecurity. In some cases, it is anxiety about what might be coming down the road. For others, it is about real and profound shifts in their lives brough about by recent events.
Is it possible to experience "God's love" at a time like this? Can I have a sense of enduring meaning and purpose when everything that I can touch dissolves? I think the prayer is ambivalent - that is, it is deeply human and honest. We are sure that even when everything seems unstable, that what really matters to us will keep us upright. Yet we walk around with a fear and nagging suspicion that it may all be for naught.
Prayers are only beautiful when they express what we really feel. This is no Hallmark card: this is Jewish prayer.
Finally, there's an essential and inextinguishable hope built into the prayer. Because the dissonant note of insecurity and the fear implicit in the closing lines of the prayer are part of the conversation about God's intentions for us. They are part of the conversation about the purpose of our lives. And this, according to the earlier part of the prayer, is what it means to experience God's love: when we discuss, meditate on, and rejoice in God's Torah, we experience love. The insecurity becomes part of the pattern of security and stability. Anxiety is coopted into a broader pattern of meaning.
When I write sentences like that last one, it generally means that the engines are shutting down and it's time to go to bed. Good night.