Shemini Atzeret: The Real Holiday of Love
This always intrigued me because all the other chagim commemorate significant spiritual events—except Shemini Atzeret.
Furthermore, the whole idea of Hashem wanting to be with us so exclusively and intimately—Shemini Atzeret holds the same obligations and prohibitions as other chagim: no phones, no computer, no driving, no malacha except cooking (according to the special laws for cooking on chagim), and lots of praying and singing—always intrigued me because Hashem is Omnipotent.
In other words, Hashem doesn’t need anything, including us. But despite all our quirks, back-sliding, and contentiousness, He metaphorically stretches out His Arms and grabs us up for a big tight Divine Hug called Shemini Atzeret.
Different Forms of Expression of Love for God
Even a cursory glance at Tanach, mussar books, chassidus, zemiros and piyutim show that Judaism expects a Jew to cultivate a very personal relationship with God. He is constantly referred to as a Father to Whom we are supposed to speak, confide in, confess, and cry out.
For example, Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs):
Once you know it’s an intimate exchange between Hashem and the Jewish people, and once you learn even a little bit of the symbolism behind its powerful metaphors, it becomes a beautiful experience to read and learn.
I once had a roommate who came up with the inspiration to do a responsive reading in English of Shir HaShirim, with one young woman reading Hashem’s part and the other reading Bnei Yisrael’s part. After we finished, her hands, still holding the chumash, fell to her lap as she said in an awed voice, “Look at how much Hashem loves us. He just loves us so much.”
The inspiring thing about this is that she was just a very normal young woman in the process of teshuvah and still had foot in part of the secular world and was reading in English—and no matter how good the translation is, Shir HaShirim loses a tremendous amount without the Hebrew.
Yet the basic message still shot like an arrow into her soul.
This is a beautiful piece to read in a quiet moment as a dialogue of love between you and Hashem.
Zemiros and Piyutim
Zemiros and piyutim are also love songs to Hashem.
One of the most famous, Yedid Nefesh, is well-known among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, with a variety of beautiful tunes to accompany it.
Just its opening words: “Soul Companion, Merciful Father, draw your servant to Your Will” already demonstrates incredible adoration on the part of the composer. The verses continue with the love and longing only increasing: “Majestic One, Beautiful One, Radiance of the World, my soul is lovesick for Your Love—please, God, please heal her now…” And later, the composer begs Hashem to spread the Sukkah of His Peace over him.
Even if one does not normally feel much emotion for Hashem, singing this piyut in a quiet spot can awaken any dormant feelings of the love and deveikut every Jewish soul feels toward Hashem, whether he or she is aware or not.
(Here, Yedid Nefesh is used as an example, but you certainly can and should use any piyut or zemiros with which you connect emotionally.)
Verbal and Artistic Expressions of Love
Talking to Hashem, especially praising and thanking Hashem for anything and everything, also awakens feelings of love and intimacy toward Him.
Furthermore, this can also be performed according to each person’s soul-expression: In Tanach, we have examples of our greatest people singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and writing their love to Hashem. And there’s no reason why you can’t also paint or draw your loving feelings toward Hashem.
Important: Even if you don't feel any love toward Hashem, engaging in expressions of love can awaken those dormant feelings, even if only a little bit.
In Western culture nowadays, emotions are given short shrift.
Many people shove positive emotions into categories like "sappy," "hyper," or just plain "too much." And negative emotions are treated as unwanted vermin to be brushed aside, stamped out, and exterminated as quickly as possible.
The Puritan ethic, so good in some ways, has also spread to Jewish observance as an ideal. But it's NOT the ideal.
When it comes to Hashem and our relationship with Him, we're SUPPOSED to get all worked up.
It’s well-known that women connect more easily in this way to Hashem than men. It’s not hard to think of several reasons for this, such as women being more naturally into relationships, the slavish devotion women show more of a tendency to express toward their object of love (not so healthy when directed toward a human being, but very much the ideal when directed toward God), being more verbally and emotionally expressive, and the fact that (as shown by sources such as Shir HaShirim and the piyutim) the Jew takes on a feminine role in the relationship with Hashem—which comes naturally to women, of course, being already positioned in a feminine role.
However, we possess hundreds (maybe thousands?) of examples of Jewish men who have definitely succeeded in cultivating an intimate and loving relationship with Hashem since time immemorial, so it’s definitely a viable goal for all Jews regardless of gender or temperament.
Feeling is Believing
But the difference between a spiritually great person and a regular person is that a spiritually great person builds him or herself up to maintaining this level of intimacy with Hashem at all times.
And yes, it is unfortunately oh-so fashionable nowadays to dismiss any spiritual aspirations as “Only very great people can do/achieve that”—even though it’s clearly not true AND even though we are halachically obligated to try (and REALLY try, not just give lip-service to the idea of trying).
So please know that even achieving one moment of loving or close feelings with Hashem is very, very powerful. It carves a long-lasting imprint into your soul that adds up over time while tilting the scales toward the side of merit on a National level.
God, We Just Plain Love You - No Matter What
At this point, the Jewish People has been through so much.
Just the last 100 years alone have seen physical genocide, spiritual genocide, terrorism, destructive hypocrisy, profound confusion, apathy, and personal traumas. If after all that, you can still say to Hashem “I love You” and really mean it—even just for a moment—well, that’s an incredible thing.
And it’s also one of the things Hashem cherishes most.