Sign In Forgot Password

Ahavah Rabah - Transformative Love

It is both intriguing and confounding that the section of Torah chosen to be read on Rosh Hashanah are the chapters that we read today and tomorrow, Genesis 21 and 22.  Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham expelling them into the wilderness, Hagar placing Ishmael under a bush to die, Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac—these are difficult stories.

Of course, there are also redemptive moments in these stories. Hagar overcomes her despair and saves her child; Abraham ends up sacrificing a ram instead of his son.  But the pain of these stories remains.  Why can’t we read about something a bit less traumatic, like the creation of the world?

So perhaps something deeper is going on here.  During the High Holydays, we are asked to honestly wrestle with our shortcomings, and to commit to doing a bit better in the year to come.  And what better way to begin that work of teshuvah than by taking an honest look at people who found themselves in challenging circumstances, and to learn from their experience?

And this is what I really love about the Torah.  These stories are presented neither as magical tales of superheroes nor as simplistic fables.  Instead, the spiritual ancestors described in these texts are sort of like us.  They get jealous and act unkindly.  They despair and make unwise decisions. They favor their own child over that of another. And they do all this not because they’re bad people—not at all.  They are simply trying to figure out what it means to fulfill their particular destiny, and they stumble and bumble their way through, sometimes hitting the mark, and sometimes missing it entirely.

When I look at these stories from the characters’ perspectives, I see God as representing capital “R” Reality —the Reality that confronts each of us in significant moments. This Reality is not always pleasant, and sometimes It is confusing in Its demands. It is a Reality that asks us to respond with wisdom and courage. And our job - like that of our Biblical forebears - is to figure out what that response should be. The key question, the Torah implies, is this:  What does this moment ask of me?  

I’ve been asking that question of myself quite a bit lately.  What does this moment ask of me? 

This is not an easy moment. There is so much suffering - in our country, in our world, right here in our community.  There is a collective exhaustion that I know affects so many of us, whether from the past few years of political turmoil or from the accumulation of years of struggle. And of course the looming threat of climate change hangs over all of it, a sobering, existential reality that we have to reckon with.

What does this moment ask of us? 

I believe, with all my heart, that in this moment, we are being asked to practice something different than the anger, unkindness and chaos that swirls around us.  We are being asked to develop resilience and strength in the face of that chaos, both for our own sakes and for the sake of the planet. 

If our Torah readings introduce the challenges that we humans face in the course of our lives, then a blessing in our liturgy called birkat Torah—the blessing of Torah—brings us wisdom about how to deal with those challenges.  This blessing introduces the Shema—which itself is a set of verses from the Torah.  You can see it in your machzor on page 300—the  Ahavah Rabbah blessing. 

I came to the realization this summer that this blessing can be read as a series of instructions for practice—instructions intended to foster resilience and build our capacity for inner and outer transformation.   

The blessing begins with these words: Ahavah rabah ahavtanu Adonai eloheynu; chemla gedolah v’teirah chamalta aleynu. I would translate this as: “Source of Life, You have loved us with a vast, expansive love; an overflowing, unconditional love pours out upon us.”

So this is practice #1:  to really know that we are loved by a vast, expansive, overflowing love, a love that emanates from the Universe itself. 

Knowing this does not require a belief in God. It also does not require having lived a life where only good and loving things have happened to you.  Rather, it’s an invitation to become aware of the very real goodness and love that occur within us and around us, on a regular basis.  The Buddhist teacher John Makransky writes that there are little acts of love visible to us each and every day of our lives, but too often we don’t notice. This love is visible in a child reaching out her hand to a parent, or in the smile of someone we pass on the sidewalk.  It might be experienced when we eat a meal prepared with care, or when we extend a helping hand to a friend.  Nothing dramatic, nothing worthy of headlines, nothing out of the ordinary. Just simple expressions of caring.

These moments are reflections of Ahavah Rabah, that great, life-sustaining love that flows through us and around us all of the time, if we know where to look.

I was reminded of this on my way home from a meditation retreat this summer.  Back in my car after seven days of silence, I was hungry, and I got a craving to go to McDonald’s.  I knew that this was perhaps not the best place to re-enter the regular world after a week of mindful vegetarian meals eaten in silence, but the lure of french fries and iced tea was too great.

So I went into the McDonald’s in Gardner, MA, and immediately noticed that the population here was a bit different than the folks at the Insight Meditation Society retreat center a few miles away.  There weren’t any Toyota Priuses in the parking lot, for one. None of the customers or staff appeared to be wearing Birkenstocks.  Not to mention that I was walking into a corporate behemoth dedicated to “fast” food, the polar opposite of mindful consumption.

But once I was inside, in my tender, open-hearted, post-retreat state, it ended up being a wonderful experience.  When I went to fill up my cup with iced tea, I noticed one customer, a large, burly man, carefully mopping up the excess liquid around the drink station with his napkin.  When I sat down to eat my meal, I overheard the manager at the next table speaking gently to a staff member with some developmental disabilities, patiently explaining to him how to tie on his apron and begin his job.  I left the McDonald’s having consumed my weekly ration of fat and salt, happy with the human race.

I offer this story as a way of saying that, on a regular day, I may or may not have noticed any of those small acts of kindness and care.  But because my own heart was open, I was able to see all the love around me - mundane, un-extraordinary love - in a place that I don’t usually associate with spiritual elevation.

It is this awareness—that there is a vast flow of love in the world, and we can have access to it if we try—that is expressed by Ahavah Rabbah.  Rabbi Rachel Timoner defines love as “the discipline of seeing the goodness in ourselves and in other human beings.”  I love that she calls this a discipline.  It’s not a belief, it’s not a leap of faith, it’s not a philosophical proposition.  It’s a discipline - to open our minds and hearts to the goodness right here in me, right there in you - right there in everyone, in fact, even if it is sometimes obscured by ignorance and hate.

To take on this discipline, we first need to be able to receive love.  John Makransky offers a practice, based in Buddhist tradition, that I call the Ahavah Rabbah practice - the practice of receiving love. 

The instruction is to bring to mind a caring moment - a moment with a person, or a pet - in which you felt loved, cared for.  It could be a moment from your childhood, or from yesterday. You can call to mind the person or animal who offered the care, or simply remember the feeling of being cared for in that moment. Makransky instructs us to “hold that person in mind for a little while, communing with them in the simple goodness of their wish of love for you, their wish for your happiness and joy. Take a few minutes just to relax and receive that wish from them.”  [full instructions for this practice can be found here.]

As we sit and take in this sense of being sent love and well wishes, we can imagine that person, that moment, as a kind of window, through which the flow of Ahavah Rabah, the great universal Love, shines upon us. 

This practice of receiving love is critical to our ability to act wisely and with compassion in the world.  I also think of it as an act of resistance. When we are feeling beaten down by sexism, by racism, by anti-Semitism, by homophobia or transphobia; if we have received messages that we are “lesser than” because of our economic status, or our level of education, or the country we come from; or if we are simply feeling tired in the face of all that the world hands us—in the face of all that negativity, which we tend to take inside and internalize, it becomes a radical act to be able to receive love, and to know, deep in our kishkes, that we are in fact loved.  Unconditionally.  By the Source of Life itself.

The more that we practice receiving love, the more we can see that love in the world around us.  And the more we see it, the more we come to believe in the power of love, the power of small acts of kindness and compassion.  And the more we believe in that, the better equipped we are to not give in to despair or hatred, the more we can ease the anger and the anxiety that constrict our hearts.

The next practice comes from the second line of the blessing: Avinu malkeinu, ba’avor avoteinu v’imoteinu sh’batchu v’cha vatilamdem chukei chayim, ken t’chonenu u’t’lamdenu.  I would translate this as: “Our Source, our parent, for the sake of our ancestors who trusted in you and learned from you laws of life, so be gracious to us and teach us.”

This line of the blessing refers to what is called, in rabbinic tradition, z’chut avot, the merit of the ancestors.  The idea is that we receive blessing - in this case, the blessing of knowing ‘laws of life,’ insight and wisdom – due to the merit of our ancestors’ faith in God and their capacity to learn the ways of Torah.

The teaching I receive from this is that there is something in me that is directly connected to my ancestors’ ability to have faith in difficult times. I have in some way inherited their resilience and the wisdom, the “laws of life,” that they acquired in their journeys and struggles.  And it is by the merit of this inheritance that I too can learn and can enjoy a powerful connection to the Source of Love.

We are learning a lot these days about inherited trauma - about the way that traumatic experiences of both individuals and groups is encoded in DNA and passed on to future generations.  This awareness is important in helping victims of trauma, and for understanding the impact of the legacy of oppression.  But the emphasis on inherited trauma can also lead us to ignore the other side of what we have inherited - the resilience of all those who have gone before us.

The truth is that not one of us would be here if we didn’t have resilient ancestors - both biological and spiritual ancestors.  We have in this room the descendants of so many different powerful ancestors: our Jewish ancestors, a tiny minority of the world’s population, who somehow managed to preserve themselves and our traditions for over two thousand years, through every imaginable challenge and trial.  African ancestors, who survived the Middle Passage and the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow in the new world.  Immigrant ancestors, who survived journeys across land and sea to make a better life here. Queer ancestors, who survived hatred and the closet and underground lives in order that I could stand here, an out lesbian rabbi.  And our Native American ancestors, in this area the Massachusset people, who preserved this land for our benefit.

We need practices to remember and honor our ancestors, because they bequeathed to us resilience and “laws of life” that can help us in times of trouble as well as at times of joy. We may have inherited their trauma, but we have also inherited their courage, their inventiveness, their capacity for endurance.   The daily Amidah prayer begins with an invocation of ancestors - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  Perhaps when we next recite the Amidah, we can take a moment to add in other ancestors whom we want to call to mind. Or the next time we’re feeling defeated or discouraged, we can take a moment and imagine an ancestor speaking to us, or writing a letter to us, sending us chukei chayim, life lessons, words of encouragement and love.

The final teaching I’d like to explore comes in the next two lines of the blessing: Avinu ha’av harachaman, rachem aleynu, v’ten b’libeynu l’havin u’lhaskel lishmoa lilmod u’l’lamed lishmor v’la’asot u’l’kayem et kol divrei talmud Toratechu b’ahava. V’ha’er eynenu b’Toratecha, v’dabek libeynu b’mitzvotecha.  Which I would translate as:

“Source of Compassion, teach us compassion, and place in our hearts the ability to understand, to discern, to listen, to learn and to teach, to carefully take action and to practice words of Torah, with love. Enlighten us with your Torah, and bring our hearts close to your mitzvot.”

This third practice is about learning and doing, from a place of compassion.  This is the core of the practice of mindfulness—the ability to be present with whatever arises in this moment, to see it clearly and to respond skillfully and wisely.  In order to do that, we need a lot of compassion—for our own impatience; for our desire for things to be different when the moment is unpleasant.  It’s about slowing down enough, and calming the mind enough, to be aware of what is actually going on, and not getting entangled in wishing it weren’t so.  It takes a lot of courage, actually, to be present with what is. But it is also enormously liberating, to let go of dwelling with regret or yearning in the past, or anxiously anticipating a future that doesn’t yet exist.  When we can look into the nature of things in the way suggested by the Ahavah Rabbah blessing - by bringing love and compassion into the work of seeing, understanding, learning, and doing  - when we can achieve that, our suffering is greatly lessened.  And then we are able to respond powerfully and wisely to whatever the world throws at us.

V’ha’er eynenu b’Toratecha, v’dabek libeynu b’mitzvotecha - Enlighten us with your Torah, and bring our hearts close to your mitzvot.   This part of the practice suggests that part of seeing clearly and with compassion is by doing mitzvot, which, the blessing suggests, are “heart practices.” 

While the word “mitzvot” is usually translated as “commandments,” we can actually think of them as a system of ritual and ethical practices intended to help us live a life of integrity and love.    

We desperately need these kinds of practices in this historical moment.  We need to train our spirits, our minds, our hearts, in order to make transformative and lasting change.  Without this training, we succumb to cynicism or despair, we can burn out or turn our anger on those who should be our friends and allies. This is where the practice of love comes in.

So, what are some mitzvot that help train us in this kind of transformative love?

One basic mitzvah is the practice of expressing gratitude by saying blessings.  Every day when we wake up, we are instructed to say “Modah ani lefanecha,” I am grateful, Source of Life, for simply waking up today.  We then go on to bless every morning action - from opening our eyes to getting out of bed to washing our face to putting on our clothes and shoes.  There are blessings for every single thing we eat, for daily miracles, for seeing a friend that we haven’t seen in a long time, for doing something for the first time in the new year.  All of these traditional Jewish blessings are intended to awaken gratitude for this moment, this day.  It’s not a hard practice to do, although it can be hard to remember.  If this is not yet your practice, I highly recommend learning some of the blessings from Jewish tradition, and making up some of your own.

Second: the mitzvah of Shabbat.  Observing Shabbat is the practice of experiencing “enough.”  The reason we are instructed not to shop on Shabbat, or make things, or interfere with nature in any way, is because for one day a week, we practice what it feels like to not need anything to be different than it is.  We practice having “enough.”

Shabbat is a very radical practice.  Our planet is teetering on the edge of ecological disaster because we human beings never have enough.  Our insatiable need for more—and all the energy it takes to feed that hunger—is the driver of climate change. Shabbat is a weekly practice of not doing—not driving, not shopping, not working. It’s an opportunity to practice restraint.

Shabbat is also called a “taste of the world to come.”  Once a week we are given the opportunity to explore real “shalom,” wholeness, peace, by stepping out of our daily routines, slowing down, and gaining a little perspective on what we truly need.  Turning off screens, taking a real break from our work, spending time with family and friends and the natural world—on Shabbat, we are invited to explore the true sources of our joy.

And finally - the mitzvah of giving, which includes tzedakah, giving of our money and material resources, and chesed, giving of our time and our care.  Just as we first need to practice receiving love, we also need to practice extending that love into the world.

Tzedakah and chesed are not left up to whim, to when we feel like giving.  They are practices; they are disciplines of love. It is a tzedakah practice to put some money aside every Friday night, as we usher in Shabbat.  It is a tzedakah practice to give away between 5 to 20% of our income every year, depending on our means.  It is a tzedakah practice to always give something, even if just a small coin, even if just a smile and a kind word, to every person in need who asks.

Chesed is something that we practice in community, and it is what binds us together as a community. It is a chesed practice to show up for a shivah minyan, even if we don’t know the person in mourning, trusting that our presence itself is a sign of compassion.  It is a chesed practice to sign up for LotsaHelpingHands, which is how we at Dorshei Tzedek coordinate our acts of caring, and it’s a chesed practice too respond when a request is put on there for a meal, or a drive to a doctor’s appointment. To treat chesed as a practice is to not just do kind acts for people we know and like, or to assume that someone else is going to take care of it.

So:  Ahavah Rabah ahavtanu - we are loved by an expansive, transformative love. By meditating on receiving love, by learning to be mindful, by saying blessings, observing Shabbat, giving tzedakah and doing acts of chesed, we can learn how to access that love, both for ourselves and for others. What I want to emphasize, is that each and every one of us needs to take seriously the need for these kinds of heart practices. We can’t let someone do it for us. 

We live in a society which teaches us to despise weakness and to devalue anything that can’t turn a profit.  We live in a world that insists the only way to make change is through violence and domination.  We live in a culture in which love and care is deemed the domain of women, which is both insulting and damaging to men.

The only way to create a different kind of society, a different kind of world, is to take seriously the need to practice Ahavah Rabbah - transformative love. We can’t imagine that we’ll somehow be able to combat tyranny and climate change, white supremacy and anti-Semitism, without transforming our own hearts and minds. And the good news is - all we have to do is decide we want to start.  One practice at a time. 

L’shanah tovah—may each of us experience, this year, what it means to be loved by that Endless Source of love, and to bring a bit more of that love into this world.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Rosh Hashanah 5780

This talk is indebted to my learning with and from my friend and teacher, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg; I highly recommend her webinar, "The Centrality of Love in the Pursuit of Justice," and I thank her for introducing me to the work of John Makransky.  You can also view a wonderful webinar with Rabbi Rachel Timoner, "Activism from Ahavah," quoted in this talk.

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784