A Prayer of Boundless Love: Extending the Shema to Include All Beings
As part of my integral worship each morning, I recite the Shema, the central Jewish prayer. The opening verses of the Shema proclaim the People of Israel’s responsibility to affirm the unity of divinity and love the One with all our heart and soul and might. For many Jews, the initial verse “Shema Yisrael YHVH Elohaynu YHVH echad” means “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is one.” For some mystically inclined Jews like myself, the opening verse means the “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our divinity, YHVH is Onenessea.”
YHVH is the holy, unpronounceable divine name that traditional Jews replace with Adonai [Our Lord], and that modern scholars designate as the tetragrammaton (Four-Letter Name) and vocalize as Yahweh. Various Rabbinic commentators gloss YHVH as “the Eternal One” because it appears to merge three singular forms of the Hebrew word for “to be”: was-is-will be (hayah, hoveh, yehiyeh). The Sages also associate YHVH with the quality of divine compassion (middat ha-rachamim)—which is the “womb [rechem] consciousness” of divinity. Jewish mystics note that the numerological value (in Gematriya) of YHVH is 26, which is equivalent to the sum of the values of the two central concepts in the Shema: love (ahavah = 13) and one (echad = 13). This spiritual equation “YHVH = Love + One” implies that divinity is fundamentally unified and loving and that love itself is the primary means for creating and sustaining unity.
While many mainstream traditional Jews understand the divine as wholly transcendent, many Jewish mystics affirm, along with the Zohar, that the Infinite One (Ein Sof) both fills and surrounds all worlds (memalai kol olmin v’sovev kol olmin). The divine is in All, and All is in It, and there is no place where divinity is not present.
Like many other members of the Jewish Renewal community, which integrates neo-Chasidism with progressive views and values and honors the insights and practices of other religious and spiritual traditions, I understand the Shema as enjoining “God-wrestlers” to experience the Oneness—of Being, Non-Being and Beyond—as divine. I like Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s translation of Israel (Yisrael) as “God-wrestler” not only because the Bible itself explains that it means “one who contends [struggles, wrestles] with God” (Genesis 32:29) but also because this gloss gives the word a more universal meaning that can speak to anyone, whether Jewish or not. Indeed, I am inclined to tell the students who take my Kabbalah courses, “If you are a God- or Goddess-wrestler, consider yourself an honorary Israelite.” Then I quickly add with a smile, “Most rabbis would not agree with that statement!”
Love Your Neighbor
Over the years, as I’ve reflected on the nature and dynamics of human love and on the Jewish tradition itself, I’ve felt a need to extend the Shema by adding Biblical verses and creating some new verses in the spirit of the nondual stream of the Jewish mystical tradition and of fellow mystical traditions in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. My first addition to the prayer was to append the Biblical verse, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Two of the Tradition’s greatest sages and saints, the 1st-century tanna Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph and the 18th-century founder of Chasidism Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, stressed the centrality of the mitzvah (divine commandment) to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva called this divine commandment “the great principle in the Torah” (klal gadol ba’Torah) and said it is the commentary and explanation of the mitzvah to love God. He believed that we can’t truly claim to love God unless we love our fellow humans. He argued that the erotic Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) be included in the Bible because it celebrated the holistic, passionate, embodied love between the People of Israel and God. On a like note, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, popularly known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), encouraged his followers to see the divine presence (Shekhinah) in everyone he or she met. Even more, he stressed that we, like the author of the Psalms, should place the divine Name before us always and honor the divine presence in all beings. Often he recited or meditated on Psalm 16:2, which declares, “I have equalized YHVH opposite me always” (Shiviti YHVH le’negdi tamid). The verse is often translated as “I have set YHVH before me always” but the verb shiviti derives from the root meaning “equal” (shaveh) and the preposition le’negdi means “opposite me.” In Tzvaat Harivash, the Baal Shem Tov understands shiviti as implying equanimity (hishtavut). This means that “No matter what happens, whether people praise or shame you, and so, too, with anything else, it is all the same to you. . . . Whatever may happen, say that ‘it comes from [God], blessed be He. . . ’ . . . . This is a very high level [of consciousness].”
When I yoke love of neighbor to love of God, I feel my love expanding and deepening, as well as grounding and uplifting. Sometimes, as I focus on loving God, I imagine my love flowing both beyond and within this world, and as I focus on loving my neighbors, I imagine my love flowing into and filling their being and then overflowing beyond to the Source of Being.
As I prayed in this way for some time, I began to feel that the focus on loving God and neighbor was not inclusive enough—it wasn’t an all-encompassing love. Indeed, some traditional Jewish commentators narrowed the meaning of “ve’ahavta rai’echa” even further by insisting it meant “love your fellow Jew,” not “love your neighbor.” Yet even focusing on the broader meaning of “love your neighbor” is still too limiting. One of the great problems today and probably at all times in human history and prehistory is that human beings are largely programmed—both biologically and socially—to be friendly toward those who are similar to them and to be fearful, suspicious, and even hateful and violent toward those who are dissimilar—“the other.”
Love the Stranger
The Bible partially seeks to redress this in-built bias in human nature with the mitzvah to “love . . . the stranger” (va’ahavtem et ha-ger) (Deuteronomy 10:19), so I decided to append that verse to my recitation of the Shema. The verse greatly helped to expand and deepen the love I was seeking to nurture in my life. I saw my love pouring into the hearts of the countless strangers I encounter in my daily life and into the hearts of countless others whom I have never met and may never meet.
Yet as I meditated on what “stranger” means to me, I realized that I understood the word much more expansively than does the Bible and Talmud. The Bible uses the word ger in its admonition to “love . . . the stranger.” According to the Talmud, a ger is a “resident sojourner” (ger toshav) in the Land of Israel and is to be distinguished from a zar or nochri, who is a temporary sojourner in the land. In other words, a ger is a very particular type of stranger, not all strangers. During the period of the Second Temple, ger generally signified a proselyte (convert), which is an even more restricted meaning (see Lieber, “Strangers and Gentiles”). Thus, ger is not even close to covering all gentiles (goyim). I wanted my daily prayers to profess a love for all people, Jew and gentile, neighbor and stranger, resident and sojourner, alike.
Love Other-Than-Human Beings
I also wanted my love to include other-than-human beings. The Bible partially addresses this by containing injunctions that prohibit torturing animals and causing them undo pain: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing” (Deut. 25:4); “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together” (Deut. 25:10); “A righteous man considers the life of his beast” (Proverbs 12:10). Jews are obligated to feed our livestock before we feed ourselves, even on the Sabbath. The laws of kashrut emphasize the sacredness of life and the need to minimize the pain of animals that are raised and slaughtered for food. The modern eco-kosher movement stresses that a plant-based diet is the most humane and holy way to eat.
Unfortunately, the Bible has been used to justify human domination of other creatures and the Earth itself. The King James Bible translates Genesis 1:28 as “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (King James Version). This translation seems to empower humans to dominate the planet. The Rabbinic Sages did not understand the verse in this way. Rather, they stressed that it meant we should be good stewards of Creation. An important midrash (legend) states that “When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him ‘round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘Behold my works, how fair and lovely they are. All that I have created, I created for your sake. Take heed that you do not corrupt and destroy my universe. For, if you spoil it, there is no one to repair it after you’” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7, 13). Contemporary Jewish eco-thinkers have gone further, arguing that even stewardship is a problematic concept because it implies that human are superior to and capable of being stewards over other earthly creatures. I am inclined to agree with the deep ecologists who affirm the equality of all life forms. However, given that human beings have already jeopardized the well-being of the planet, we have a special responsibility to repair the damage and care for the well-being of the Earth community.
As I continued to contemplate and pray “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), I came to realize that if I adhered strictly to that mitzvah, I’d be offering a less than complete love to my neighbor. As children, my brothers and I were taught again and again that any concern for self was selfish. We were regularly admonished to focus on serving the needs of others and minimize our own. Indeed, I got the clear impression it was best to have very few and very modest needs, and, if possible, to not voice them.
In my twelfth year, in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, I took a course taught by our Hebrew School principal, Dr. Louis Katzoff, on Pirkei Avot, the Mishnaic tractate on the Chapters of the Fathers. While studying that wonderful collection of early Rabbinic wisdom and ethics, I learned that Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Renowned for his wise, loving, and peaceful nature, Hillel emphasized that we need to include ourselves in our circle of love, care, and nurturance. From that time onward, I sought to include myself in the circle of love but for many years was not very successful at doing so.
While studying psychology in college, I learned that our attitudes toward ourselves are projected onto the world, particularly onto other people. It became clear to me that if I did not know and love myself more fully, I could not deeply understand and love others either. As a result of my understanding of the psychodynamics of love, I embarked on what would become decades of psycho-spiritual work to enhance my understanding of, and love for, self and others. It hasn’t been an easy journey. I’ve learned that self-understanding, healing, and growing are a lifelong project and process. And so is understanding and loving others. Moreover, every form of love has its own form of resistance that has to be faced and worked through.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung stressed that ongoing shadow work is essential for psycho-spiritual growth and development. The shadow is the sum total of all the parts of ourselves that we disown. The dark shadow consists of all the negative thoughts, actions, feelings, perceptions, and attributes we find shameful, embarrassing, weak, evil, or in any other way unacceptable. The bright shadow includes all of the positive parts of our personality that we don’t own because of our low self-esteem. We tend to unconsciously project both the negative and positive elements of the shadow, and so excessively criticize individuals who seem to bear elements of our dark shadow as well as excessively admire individuals who seem to possess elements of our bright shadow. Much of my own psycho-spiritual progress has come from doing shadow work and from taking time to accept, forgive, and appreciate myself. For me, authentic self-love involves self-understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and care.
Love the Enemy
Some aspects of the dark shadow appear to us as “the enemy within.” The Jewish tradition personifies these elements as “the evil inclination” (yetzer ha-ra) and as issuing from “the left side” and links them to the demonic and Satanic. Kabbalists have developed an extensive demonology (which I don’t personally resonate with). Moreover, evil is personified as “the Other Side [Sitra Achra]” of the Infinite One. Since the Infinite One (Ein Sof) includes and surpasses all, then evil too must be encompassed within It. Evil is in effect those aspects of the Infinite that have become excessive, out of balance, or out of place. Kabbalists associate evil with the human-divine quality (sephirah) of judgment/strength (din/gevurah) because when this quality becomes distorted it produces condemnation, wrath, and violence.
One dimension of Chasidism that deeply attracted me as a youth was the Baal Shem Tov’s assertion that holy sparks exist everywhere, even in the heart of a “demon.” The Besht (acronym for Baal Shem Tov) was a spiritual genius, leader, and healer who sought to simplify and popularize the Kabbalah, to shift its somewhat ascetic focus to a more holistic and joyful one, and to stress divine immanence in all creatures. I’ll never forget the legendary story about the Besht taking a group of school kids into the woods where they encounter a demon who attacks them. Although the Besht is compelled to fight against the demon and willy nilly take its life, he sees the divine spark shining in the demon’s heart and so tenderly buries it. Over and over again, the Besht demonstrated that if we truly set the divine before us always and see the divine everywhere, then we must strive to love our “enemies” and treat them as alienated brothers and sisters. Indeed, the Besht felt a deep kinship with all beings and even knew “the language of the birds.”
I aspire to, and often experience, this kinship with all creatures. The challenge is to continuously act on the implications of that kinship. One of my more recent practices is to try to not kill spiders that find their way into our house. Each time I see a spider or another scary insect, I remind myself to pause, take a breath, and figure out a more humane way of “liberating” the creature from our premises. I am not always successful.
Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). For me this new mitzvah means to love both my outer enemies and my inner enemies and to find ways of reconciling with them. The enemy, whether the inner shadow or the outer adversary, is the ultimate “other” or “stranger” who needs our greatest compassion and understanding—and our generous love. If we continue to fear, hate, and aggress against our enemies, then we will only perpetuate the cycle of violence. The Buddha not only reminded his followers that “hatred breeds hatred” but also encouraged them to extend compassionate service to all sentient beings. In fact, a bodhisattva vows to help free all beings from suffering and to refrain from entering the final phase of Liberation (Nirvana) until all beings are liberated. That altruistic pledge means that bodhisattvas dedicate all of their successive incarnations to promoting the well-being of all. A related notion is found in the Jewish mystical tradition: devoted Kabbalists are obliged to engage in healing and mending their souls (tikkun nefesh) as well as healing and mending the world (tikkun olam)—all of which contributes, as it were, to healing and mending the divine unity. Since many Kabbalists believe in reincarnation, they understand this healing and mending process as one that unfolds over many lifetimes.
I don’t know whether Jesus spoke “Love your enemies” in Aramaic or Hebrew or in some other language (the Septuagint’s Greek translation is agapate tous echthrous), but I translated his words into the Hebrew phrase, “Va’ahavtem et oyveikhem” and appended it to the Shema. I also added the phrase “Va’ahavtem et kol ha-yetzurim” (And you shall love all creatures) to remind myself each day to love all beings. Finally, because of my beloved’s special place in my heart, and because of the daily challenges that married couples face, I added “Ve’ahavta et ishtikha” (And you shall love your wife).
Recently, I started focusing on the prayer that precedes the Shema, the Ahavah Rabah, which affirms the “Great Love” that the divine bestows on all God-wrestlers. Indeed, some Kabbalists believe the Infinite One created the world in order to be able to give love and goodness to an “other.” If there were no world, there would be no companion to receive the divine beneficence. The Infinite One too “needs” or at least values giving. Creation is a great gift that the Infinite gives to Itself. And existence and love are among the many gifts the Infinite bestows on each creature. All of Creation and beyond is understood as an unending process—an undying heartbeat—of giving and receiving.
Rather than merely loving others as I love myself, I try to let the Loving One love through me. Sometimes, I imagine divine love flowing into me, nurturing, cleansing. and revitalizing my body and soul, and then flowing back to the Wellspring as well as out to all other beings to nurture, cleanse, and revitalize them. And sometimes, I imagine the love flowing back and forth between all beings and creating a flowing fabric of light connecting all to all to All.
Another way I strive to strengthen my capacity to receive and give love is to focus on listening more deeply. The Shema reminds me—by its meaning and its sound (Ssshhhhhmmmaaaaaaaa)—to quiet my mind and body and feel-sense-intuit-know the divine presence everywhere. Sometimes, I meditate in silence just before or after reciting the Shema. Sometimes, I create silent gaps between the words—by pausing for several seconds—so I can experience the loving presence that surrounds and gives birth to the words and to all creatures. Then it feels as if the Silence Itself were reciting the prayer through me.
The specially enlarged final letters in the first verse of the Shema remind me to know the Oneness through silent listening. The last letter of the word Shema (Hear) has an enlarged ayin, while the last letter of the word Echad (One) has an enlarged dalet. Those two letters can spell two words: Eid (spelled ayin-dalet), which means “witness”; and Da (spelled dalet-ayin), which means “know.” Through listening and hearing deeply I come to witness and know the unity of divinity. Rabbinic Sage Rabbi Eliezer advised that “when praying, know [da] before Whom you stand” (Talmud, Berakhot 28b). In the Bible, knowing (da’at) has a holistic, embodied quality that includes the erotic. For me this means I am called to love God with every aspect of my being and to transform the wayward aspects of myself—traditionally associated with the “evil inclination” and the “Other Side”—so that they too harmonize with, serve, and love the Infinite.
Love All Always
The opening and close of the Bible hint at the centrality of love. Genesis begins with the letter beyt, and Deuteronomy ends with the letter lamed. The Sages noted that those two letters can form two words: Bal (spelled beyt-lamed), which means confusion; and lev (spelled lamed-beyt), which means heart. This suggests that the Torah was given to dispel the confusion of the human heart and illumine it with divine light and love. When the heart breaks open, that loving light is better able to flow into and out of it. The Baal Shem Tov was continually reminding his followers that Psalm 34:19 says “God is close to the broken-hearted” and that the Talmud says “the Compassionate One requires the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b).
I believe that today and perhaps at all times the divine is calling us to continuously love all Creation and the Source of Creation. At earlier times in human history we did not always hear this call, or heard it in a limited or distorted way. The Sages and Kabbalists remind us that the word mitzvah not only means “commandment” but also “joining, attaching” (from the Aramaic word tzavta) and “counsel” (from the Hebrew word etzah). Thus, these various “love commandments” can be understood as “love counsels” that help us to lovingly unite with the Infinite, with ourselves, and with all beings.
Love Is an Action and Obligation
Of course, it is not enough to remind ourselves to love. We have to act on that counsel. The Hebrew word for love (ahavah) is etymologically related to the word for giving (hav), indicating that love is an acting of giving, nurturing, bestowing care. Other Hebrew words for love, such as chen, chesed and rachamim, emphasize the gracious, kind, and compassionate aspects of love. Two Hebrew words for love—cheshek and chefetz—highlight the passionate, desirous, and bonding dimensions of love, while the word dod is a name of endearment that stresses the preciousness of the beloved.
The Jewish tradition emphasizes that love is an obligation (mitzvah) and a yoke (ol), not just a feeling or a voluntary action. Indeed, one of the Hebrew words for love (chibah) is related to the word for obligation (chiyuv). Jews are required to give charity—as much as a tenth (tithe) of our income. The Biblical word for charity is tzedakah, which is related to the word for justice (tzedek). Charity is a required act of justice and love that ensures a fairer, more compassionate distribution of resources. Most Jewish temples, synagogues, and shuls place a tzedakah box near the worship sanctuary so that worshippers can immediately put their prayerful love into action by financially supporting the poor.
The great medieval philosopher, doctor, rabbi, and Talmudist, Moses Maimonides, advised that we give regularly and develop the habit of giving according to our means. Such regular giving trains the heart to stay open and generous. Through giving we create and strengthen connections—weaving community and revitalizing the web of life. The tradition even asserts that the receiver of charity is doing a greater mitzvah than the donor because the receiver is creating the opportunity for a holy mitzvah to be performed! (Talmud, Baba Batra 9a).
The Sages said that the world is sustained by Torah study, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim) (Pirkei Avot 1:2). These voluntary acts of love include visiting the sick; welcoming guests; attending to the needs of brides, orphans, and the elderly; comforting mourners, performing tasks for the deceased; protecting animals and the environment; and bringing peace. These are acts that can’t be legislated but are strongly encouraged for they are most potent when they spring from spontaneous generosity and care.
Another way to express love is through the practice of blessing. We bless others through our words and our deeds. Blessing involves sending good thoughts, wishes, and energies to others as well as doing good deeds for them. As part of my daily prayer practice, I send blessings to all beings and to the Source of Being. I do this in part by reciting an expanded Priestly Benediction (Birkat Ha-Cohanim). During the High Holidays, my Jewish Renewal congregation encourages anyone who feels called to bless the congregation to recite the Priestly Benediction. I am not a cohen (a hereditary priest) but a few years ago began joining the cohanim in blessing our congregation. A few years ago, I added this practice to my daily prayers and also expanded the benediction. Rather than sending blessings to the congregation or to the People of Israel, I send them to all people and all beings and then conclude by sending all beings peace, first in Hebrew and then in the diverse languages of other religions:
Yivarchecha Adonai v’yishmarecha [May the Eternal One bless you and keep you]
Ya’er Adonai panav ailecha v’chuneka [May the Eternal One shine Its face upon you and grace you.]
Yisa Adonai panav alecha v’yasem licha shalom [May the Eternal One lift up Its face and grant you peace.]
Shalom shalom la’rachok v’ la karov [Peace, peace to the far and to the near—from Isaiah 57:19].
Salaam alaykum [Peace unto you—in Arabic]
Pax vobiscum [Peace unto you—in Latin]
Pace e bene [Peace and goodness—in Italian]
Om mani peme hum [Om, the Jewel in the Lotus—in Pali]
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti [Om, Peace, peace, peace—in Sanskrit].
Charles Burack, Ph.D., is an award-winning poet, writer, scholar, and professor at John F. Kennedy University as well as an interfaith spiritual director, lay chaplain, and creativity coach. His latest poetry collections are Leaves of Light (Apocryphile, 2016) and Songs to My Beloved (Sacred Arts, 2012). He can be reached at www.charlesburack.com.