The three great major themes of Jewish theology – creation, revelation, and redemption – structure the blessings before and after Shema. The first, יוצר המאורות/“who creates lights” praises God’s creation; the third, following Shema, גאל ישראל/“who redeems Israel” speaks of the One who liberates us – from Egypt specifically, but paradigmatically, from all exile and oppression.
In our Tefillah Tuesday journey through the Siddur, we’ve reached the second blessing before Shema, אהבה רבה/Ahavah Rabbah, which celebrates God’s revealing Torah.
How does the classical Siddur describe this mythic trope? Is God just a big bossypants, always issuing impossible shalts and shalt nots? That is the view of Paul in the Christian Bible [e.g. Romans 3 and 4], who says that God gave the ultra-demanding Torah to demonstrate to Israel that they were inadequate and unrighteous, and needed “that man,” a certain redeemer to overcome their transgressions with faith. “For the law brings wrath,” he said [Romans 4.15].
Au contraire! When you daven Ahavah Rabbah you receive the Torah as a gift of love, not a wrathful trap. “You have loved us with abundant love,” this prayer says, “with exceptionally vast tenderness.” As you taught our ancestors the חוקי חיים/the laws of life, “may you show us the same grace and teach us.” God is portrayed here not as a taskmaster, impossible to please, always expecting us to fail and never disappointed, but rather as a tender teacher, helping us find a path to a sacred and satisfying life.
The Torah may impose difficult burdens, and sometimes we modern, liberal Jews can feel distant and critical about this ancient text. But when you receive the Torah, the Master of the Cosmos invites you lovingly to study together, and enter Israel’s conversation with God about how to live, how to behave, what to think and what kind of people to be.
Our passage in the Siddur expresses this idea with special beauty:
אבינו, אב הרחמן, המרחם, רחם עלינו ותן בלבנו להבין להשכיל, לשמוע ללמוד וללמד, לשמור לעשות ולקיים את כל דברי תורתך באהבה.
Let’s take this phrase, clause by clause:
Our parent, loving parent, loving One, love us. In rabbinic Hebrew, rahamim means both mercy and love. One of the Talmud’s names for God is רחמנא/Rahmana, the Merciful, or more literally in Aramaic “the Lover.” Note how our text keeps playing that note, repeating love three times in succession: HaRahaman, Hamerahem, rahem. Those who like to pay attention to theological gender dynamics might find something fun in this phrase. I have translated av as parent, but of course it literally means father. Yet we might find something more at work here than the exclusively male God. For the word womb is rehem, associating mercy and love with a maternal image. It would not be too much of a stress for a davener to find in the phrase Av HaRahaman something like “maternal father.”
Place in our hearts the capacity to understand and be enlightened… Every creature figures out how to thrive in its environment. That’s the very definition of Darwinian survival, right? But as homo sapiens, we hope not only to find food and avoid predators, we hope to understand what the world means. And as Jewish homo sapiens that search for meaning comes through the Torah. Genesis 1.26 famously describes people asבצלם א’להים /created in the image of God. The 11th century commentator Rashi expounded that phrase by quoting our prayer: להבין להשכיל, “with the capacity to understand and be enlightened.” I image Rashi saying these words each morning and reflecting upon himself as a creature in the divine image.
To listen, study and teach… When I daven this phrase, I pray for the strength and discipline to devote fixed times to study. Learning takes work.
To guard, to perform and to fulfill … The word lishmor suggests observing the prohibitions and la’asot refers to performing the active commandments. I pray here for the strength to do both: avoid the bad and achieve the good. As Psalms 34.14 says: סור מרע ועשה טוב, sur me’rah v’aseh tov. “Turn from evil and do good.”
All the words of Your Torah with Love. We Jews experience that God gave us a Torah in divine love, to help us live. And that’s how we pray to receive it and fulfill it: giving love right back, reciprocally. The Talmud says: רחמנא לבא בעי /Rahmana liba bayeh, “the Lover wants the heart.” When I daven this phrase, I pray for the strength to love God back.