The month preceding Rosh Hashana is Elul. The rabbis say that the name Elul is an acronym for Ani l’dodi, u’dodi li or I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me. Who is the beloved in question? Who else, but God. Elul is a time for us to return to God before the new year. But there’s a big question to think about. Can the Torah command us to love? Love is an emotion. How can we be commanded to feel an emotion?
What is love?
When we think about love, such sayings comes to mind as, “you can’t help who you fall in love with” and “love is blind.” That love is something that we’re at the mercy of, that we fall into. But anyone who has been an in enduring and honest relationship will tell you that the above sentiments are really about infatuation. That a real and lasting love takes work. And some even go so far as to say that love is a choice. How do you choose to love someone? Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s definition of love may help. He defined love as the ability to identify and take pleasure in the positive attributes of someone or something.
So let’s unpack that. The first step is the ability to identify positive attributes. We all have complicated relationships with our parents, family, co-workers, the government, Tim at Starbucks (My name is Ben, you see me everyday, why does my latte always say Dan?!) Some of the time it’s really easy to see the positive. But when we don’t love something, it’s because we’ve lost touch with those things.
So to actually do this first step, it requires you to refresh yourself with the reality of the positive. No matter how difficult of a relationship you have with your father (barring an abusive or absent one) if you were to list all the things he’s done for you opposed to all the things he’s screwed up, I’m willing to bet that first list is longer than the second. It’s only when we see those positive attributes that we’re able to do the second step and have the gratitude necessary to take pleasure in them.
Loving God is so much more abstract. If you don’t believe in God or you don’t believe He’s an active participant in your life, there’s really no conversation to be had. But if you do subscribe the Jewish understanding of Hashem, that He is always there and always involved with your life, then at that point you are able to do the exercise above and hopefully have gratitude for the good things in your life. And from that a relationship can grow.
In my own experience, I’ll admit that my relationship with God at this point is conditional. When things are booming, I’m getting writing work, I’m dating an exciting girl, my outlook looks great, I’m more than happy to do mitzvahs. But when I’m in a downturn, an important relationship sours, a boss is taking advantage of me, no girls are returning my texts, it honestly feels painful to wrap tefillin or say all three paragraphs of the shema in the evening. Yet I know I shouldn’t be doing mitzvahs for reward and punishment!
That’s when I reflect on my relationship with my parents. Early on, my relationship with my mom and dad was just as I described above. My mom buys me a video game, they’re the best parents in the world. They say I can’t go out with my friends, now they are the most oppressive regime since Communist Russia. But as an adult, I’m independant of them (mostly) and I know what they want is what’s best for me. So now the relationship is about advice, comfort, connection. Granted there are things that my parents could do that would infuriate me, but for the most part, the relationship is past that. If I’m going to do something nice for them, it’s going to be to make them happy, not to get something out of them. That’s what it means to have a loving relationship with God.
A Constant Mitzvah
So not only does the Torah command us to love God, but we’re supposed to love Him constantly. Most mitzvahs you can only fulfill if you have the opportunity to fulfill them. Meaning you can only keep “don’t murder” if you have the urge to murder someone. (Hopefully you’re not struggling with that particular mitzvah.) But then there are the 6 constant mitzvahs. 6 mitzvahs that at any given moment you have the opportunity to fulfill. And there is always a struggle to fulfill them. Loving God is one of these 6. That’s because building then maintaining a relationship is something you can always be doing.
So as we finish up the month of Elul and enter Rosh Hashana, know that this is a particularly opportune time to develop this relationship. Reflect on how you think about God. What are you mad at Him about? What could He do that would really make you happy? Then reflect on all the things in your life that you have because of Him. Finally remember that there is a relationship there to develop. But in that phrase is I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, the ‘I’ is first. Because in order for you to tap into that relationship, you’re the one who has to make the first move.