Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Sunday, November 17, 2013


My dad brought me up to believe in The Who.  Sure, there was some talk of God in our home, but deification seemed to be reserved for Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and their crew. Quadrophenia was the ancient music of our ancestors.

A crash course in Quadrophenia – it’s a rock opera about a boy named Jimmy who’s
having, to put it mildly, a really hard time. At a certain point, he hits bottom and sings the epic song: “Love, Reign O’er Me.” A lot of things make the song distinctive, but its really unique because it begins with the sound of rain and thunder. Pete Townshend was a believer in the guru Meher Baba who taught that God lived in the rain and the thunder.

In fact, Pete Townshend said the following of God’s connection to Quadrophenia and “Love, Reign O’er Me”: “Quadrophenia is music, it's angry music, it never lets up, it's full of energy. But it's also simply a story of a kid who has a bad day. It rains and he goes and sits on a rock. And he contemplates the future and the present, and he decides to do something that he's never done before - he prays.”

Jimmy (or rather, Roger Daltrey) sings the lyrics:

Only love can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky
Only love can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high

Love, reign o’er me!

What does it mean for God’s love to pour over us, or at least to be coming our way at all? Love is a human attribute…an attribute we very often assign to God. This can be acceptable to you or not, depending on what sort of God concept you believe in. It is easier to say “God loves you” if you believe in a single, definable entity you call God. It becomes much harder if you have a different sort of notion: that God is a unifying force, or a process that’s driving in our world. How can a process “love”?

We can begin investigating “God’s love” with mystical thought. The medieval kabbalists believed that God's self could not be understood, but that God has revealed attributes that interact with each other and the world. One of these 10 attributes is hesed, usually translated as “lovingkindness,” an English word that in it’s own right needs a translation. The kabbalists say that hesed, lovingkindness, represents the generous, benevolent side of God, the quality of unconditional Divine Love. Hesed is often translated in the mystical context as "love," "compassion," or "grace."

Rabbi Bradley Artson, the dean of the rabbinical school at American Jewish University, draws on these ideas of benevolent generosity.  Drawing from the ideas of Martin Buber, reminds us that love, even between people, is covenantal, meaning it is a two-way street. He says,

“Covenantal love, we are told, nurtures understanding and generosity; seeing the best in your lover; seeing the best in your children; in your community; in humanity; in the world; and then with similar generosity, sharing in their struggles; sharing in their efforts…Chesed is the integration of values and emotions with deeds…There is so much bounty manifest in this world, a harvest which we did nothing to deserve. We were simply born into a world that was prepared across the millennia for our arrival. Our task in the world is to savor the bounty, to delight in it, to steward it and to help each other to do the same.”

Artson points to a crucial aspect of hesed – love is not just a feeling; it’s an action. Perhaps it is the same with God. Not is not a “thing,” God is an action. As love is a process, God is a process. Maybe it’s not that God loves, but that God is love. God is within the love we
manifest human to human. God is in our actions of generosity and compassion.

So then, if we keep with the platitude, “God loves you,” perhaps God “loves” differently than we “love.” I manifest my love to my daughter by taking care of her daily needs. I change her diaper, I feed her, I hug her, kiss her goodnight. We say God takes care of our daily needs, but not in the same way. God doesn’t feed me, but God certainly exists in the processes that make the plants grow, enables the workers who make my food, etc. God loves through us. God loves Noah because I love Noah. God loves our religious school kids because we as a community love them. God loves you because this community loves you and, hopefully, most importantly, you love it back.

But there’s one more piece to the hesed puzzle. There’s also an overwhelming aspect of “generosity” to the word hesed.

Alan Morinis, the founding director of the Mussar Institute shares: “Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a master of Mussar, pointed to the close correlation between love and acts of generosity and asked, “Do we give to the people we love, or do we love the people to whom we give?” His answer: “We usually think it is love which causes giving, because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the person he loves. But there is another side to the argument….A person comes to love the one to whom he gives.” To foster love, he taught, be generous: extend what you have in your hands and in your heart toward other human beings. Love will grow along the lines of your giving. Dessler says: “That which a person gives to another is never lost. It is an extension of his own being.”

What a nice way to look at things as we head into the Hanukkah season, a time when we will give material things. Of course we give to the people we love…but a wonderful challenge is how we can come to love others by giving to them first. Morinis adds: “The linguistic root of ahava, the Hebrew word for love, literally means “to offer” or “to give.” The act of giving bridges the gap between souls and initiates the process of soul-merger that is the very definition of love.” Those boxes out in the hall for “The Gift of Hanukkah” and “Toys for Tots” are not full of presents, they are full of love.

And so in this way, shifting our language may help us to understand God and “God’s love.” Rather than God gives (which conjures up images of a Divine hand outstretched towards humans, delivering things out of nothing), God is giving. God is loving. God doesn’t necessarily love you with a big bear hug, but God is loving you by cradling you in community. Love is a manifestation of God, rather than something God does.

A midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 33:3):

There was a drought in the time of R. Tanchuma. Tanchuma declared a fast in order to ask for rain. Three days went by, no rain. He then entered the synagogue to preached to them: “Be good to one another, give tzedekah to the poor, and then God will be filled with compassion for you.” As they were distributing tzedekah, R. Tanchuma’s students saw a man giving money to a woman he had no business talking to. “Why would you give to that woman?” Tanchuma asked. The man replied, “I saw she was in trouble and I was filled with mercy for her.” Tanchuma then turned his face to the sky and exclaimed, “Ruler of the Universe! This man saw this woman in distress and was filled with mercy for her – even though he owed her nothing. As we are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the moreso you should have compassion on us!” Immediately the rain descended and the world enjoyed relief.

A more anthropomorphic God, sure. Yet, we’d be shortsighted to only see the love in this story as the love God bestows on the community through rain. The love the rained down in this midrash is also found in the bonds of human to human. The giving from one to another is the love, and that love is God. May we find that love in our own community, our own relationships, in our lives. Ken yhi ratzon.


Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” other than the rain and thunder, is the way that Roger Daltrey sang it with a shriek in his voice. Apparently, Pete Townshend intended the song be sung quietly, while Daltrey interpreted it as a scream. Same prayer, different feeling. So it is with love. Sometimes love is passionate, sometimes it is quiet. Sometimes ostentatious, sometimes private. And God too. Sometimes we feel God close, or loud. Sometimes God feels hidden. God’s still there, may we just remain open to that. Shabbat Shalom.