And while taking shortcuts (like focusing on self-esteem, self-worth, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, self-image, self-acceptance, and so on) can produce positive results, they ultimately cannot bring you to your full potential and healing. The self-introspection necessary to rectify yourself and to achieve true teshuvah is impossible without clinging to God in the awareness that He loves you with an Indestructible and Eternal Bond of Love.
So if there is only to gain and nothing to lose by loving and accepting love from Hashem, then why don’t people simply head down the road of Ahavat Hashem/Love of God?
There are lots of reasons:
- Previous traumas and experiences that make you feel you can’t trust God, that God is scary, or that He even hates you, chas v’shalom.
- It feels unachievably far from your present state.
- It doesn’t really sound Jewish because Christians talk about “love” all the time and you haven’t heard Jews talk about love within a religious context.
- You may never have experienced love or only experienced exploitation and abuse in the guise of “love” and have no idea how to love anyone.
- People you respect encourage you in another direction (like the hyphenated “self-” way) because those people, despite their own goodness and good intentions, cannot relate to the concept of ahavat Hashem.
- Following on the previous reason, people you respect insist that this is not even attainable and only for tzaddikim.
- You have no clue how to even start, so you don’t bother even trying.
- It’s rarely discussed in modern-day lectures and books, so you either didn’t know about it OR you know, but didn’t realize how essential it is.
And probably other reasons that I didn't think of.
And yes, I feel weird writing about this topic because I am just as flawed and wonky as anyone else and am definitely not example of an ohev/et Hashem. I discovered the necessity of ahavat Hashem pretty late in the game because of some of the above reasons.
My own fork-in-the-road came when I started reading a lot of classic Jewish sources and could no longer maintain my state of denial and the fact that loving Hashem is expounded on at length in millennia of Torah literature regarding it's essential necessity and truth.
However, just the little attempts I’ve made at loving Hashem have produced undeniable results and I'd be happy if everyone else could benefit at least as much as I have - if not more!
So let’s start with the big questions:
Do you really need to do this?
“You shall love the Lord, your God…”
"V'ahavta et Hashem Elokecha..."
ואהבת את ה אלוקיך
Judaism is full of exhortations to cleave to Hashem. Chassidus has run with this idea and contains copious teachings on the importance of “deveikus” - cleaving to Hashem.
So you're halachically obligated to consciously and actively try, even if you can't relate to it at all.
(If "can't relate to it at all" describes you as it once described me, then please note that toward the end of the post, you'll find suggestions for getting yourself started according to your individual disposition and idiosyncrasies.)
Luckily, this isn’t an all-or-nothing bet. Any attempt at loving Hashem reaps happy rewards. The mere act of trying to form a loving relationship with Hashem, however awkwardly or inconsistently, automatically makes you a better and happier person.
Depending on where your starting point is, you may not become a good or happy person immediately, but you will be better or happier than you were.
The following may sound odd, but if you dismiss this Torah mitzvah (as many people mistakenly do) as something “only tzaddikim do,” or if you only acknowledge this mitzvah in word, but make no conscious effort in deed, it’s really no different than a Jew who claims to be frum, but then dismisses Shabbat as “only for tzaddikim” or insists that keeping kosher is “too hard and not for normal people on our level” or that keeping taharat hamishpacha is not for people in our generation (which is what the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements do).
For example, if you are a Sabbath-observant Jew, you likely do not keep Shabbat perfectly, but that doesn’t stop you from trying, right? I mean, have you ever accidentally hit a light switch on Shabbat? Made your morning coffee straight from a kli rishon? Felt sad or gotten angry? (Remember, joy is an obligation on Shabbat while sadness and anger are strictly forbidden.) Yet you don’t brush off Sabbath observance as “only for tzaddikim.”
So the same effort applies with this mitzvah, too.
Is this a truly realistic goal?
In Chapter 4 of the Gate of Love of Hashem in Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachya lists 3 types of love, then says that only the third is not possible for every person. “Nature and instinct work against it,” he explains.
Yet he insists:
“The first two kinds, however, are within the grasp of most people, provided they work hard at the preliminaries cited earlier in this gate.”
The 3 kinds of love are:
- Love for which it is easy to give up one’s money
- Love for which it is easy to give up part of one’s body and all one’s money
- Love for which it is easy to give up one's money, body, and soul (i.e. your life)
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that Avraham Avinu achieved all these levels, but that realistically speaking, most of us can only hope to reach the first two.
How can I possibly begin?
The first thing you can do is start thinking of things in your life which benefit you and for which you can be grateful. Praise Hashem and thank Him for whatever you have.
Again, the idea of praising and thanking God is king all throughout Torah literature.
As one starting point, you can think of all the things He has done for you and continues to do for you.
In fact, Rabbeinu Bachya himself lists 30 topics you can cover with Hashem in the section called Gate of Self-Accounting. You can use those as your springboard.
For more ideas on getting started with baby steps, you can read books written on this topic for regular people, like:
- Garden of Emuna
- The How, What, and Why of Talking to God (available here as a free download and can be read within an hour, so you can be on your way toward more love pretty quickly)
- Talk to God and Fix Your Health, (which includes fixing your mental and spiritual health too)
- I've also been going through Rivka Levy's 49 Days: An Interactive Journal of Self-Development and have already found several helpful springboard ideas and topics.
- Orit Esther Riter's book Turnaround: 180 Degrees in 180 Days also offers a variety of helpful tips for getting started in a loving relationship with Hashem.
There are other books written for English-speaking lay people on how to get started, but I can't remember them right now.
Any mussar book (Duties of the Heart, Pathways of the Just, Ways of the Tzaddikim, The Way of God, The Gates of Repentance, Palm Tree of Devorah) or any classic Chassidic book (such as the Tanya of Chabad/Lubavitch or Likutei Moharan of Breslov) can explain the importance of trying to love Hashem and advise you how to go about it. In particular, Breslov books encourage you to connect with God despite intense feelings of unworthiness, shame, and self-loathing.
Starting Out with Action
- You can tell Hashem you love Him.
- Blow Him kisses.
- Sing to Him.
- Dance for Him.
- Play music for Him.
- Write poetry to Him.
- Give Him a thumbs-up as you go about your day.
- Paint or sketch Him a picture of your feelings of love or gratitude.
- Read Shir HaShirim as if it's an actual exchange between you and Hashem.
People don't always realize that Judaism actually provides soul-expression for love. Sefardim in particular possess a whole tradition of piyutim, which are basically love songs to God. An Invitation to Piyut (H/T Hava haAharonah-The Last Eve) provides you with the words and melodies to many piyutim.
Some piyutim, like Yedid Nefesh, are well-known across the Jewish world, among both the Sefardi and the Ashkenazi communities.
(Composed around 500 years ago, Yedid Nefesh is a particularly stirring love-poem to God with particularly beautiful melodies. Here is Yedid Nefesh in translation. Here it is in transliteration. And here is a selection of its melodies; scroll down to #9. The Lev Tahor acappella group also has a very nice version of Yedid Nefesh.)
You can read piyutim or sing them as if you were actually singing or reading to your one great love of a lifetime.
In the Bakashah prayer composed by Rabbeinu Bachya at the end of Duties of the Heart, he strongly advises you to sing to Hashem.
Of course these are all just suggestions. Feel free to start off expressing yourself according to the nature Hashem planted within you.
The Reality of the "Happy Ending" to Your Personal Divine Love Story
You don’t even need to intend your expressions of love as a merit for the Jewish people, yourself, or the world (although you certainly can if you wish!). Just doing it and getting yourself into that state is good enough, as far as God goes.
And the truth is, even a very unspiritual and disconnected person can activate a feeling of love for Hashem, even if it’s just for one fleeting second.
Women may have an easier time accessing this state than men due to women’s innate tendency toward emotional experience and expression.
Finally, like everything else in spiritual work, this is a process. It’s perfectly normal to fall on your face, to throw in the towel temporarily, to careen from “I absolutely positively ADORE you, Hashem!” to “AAAACK! How could You do this to me??!!!” and anything else.
The main thing is to try.
Torah Judaism: The REAL Religion of Love