We say it in every service: “V’ahavta eit Adonai Elohecha, b’chol levavcha, uvchol nafshecha, uvchol me’odecha.”
Our Mishkan T’filah prayerbook translates this passage from the Shema as: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”
That’s a reasonable translation, but it does not tell the whole story. The word “levavcha” is translated as “your heart,” but the human organ on the left side of your chest did not have the same association in ancient Hebrew as it has in contemporary English. To us, the heart is the place in your being where you hold love and other emotions. The heart is what you feel with.
The ancient speakers of Hebrew did not have that association with the heart. To them, the heart was something different. It was the place in your being where you hold thoughts, ideas and your emotions. To them, the heart is what you think with. When the Hebrew Bible talks about loving God b’chol levavcha, it means what we would mean in English by saying, “You shall love God with your entire mind.”
The next word in this phrase from the Shema that we should inspect is “nafshecha.” It is the word that our prayer book says means “your soul”—as in, “you shall love Adonai…with all your soul.” This, too, is probably not what the ancient Hebrews meant when they used this word. “Nefesh” in biblical Hebrew is used to refer to a person’s life force—the thing that, if you don’t have it, you are no longer alive. That certainly sounds something like a soul.
However, nefesh takes on that understanding as an extension of its more basic meaning. In biblical Hebrew, your nefesh is a part of your body. It is your throat. It is the thing that, if you don’t have it, you are no longer breathing and you are no longer alive. In general, when the Hebrew Bible uses the word nefesh, it is not really talking about your spiritual essence—at least not in the sense that we mean when we talk about the “soul.” It is talking about your physical life. It is talking about your body.
So we have to re-examine what we mean when we pray these words from the Shema. “V’ahavta eit Adonai Elohecha, b’chol levavcha, uvchol nafshecha, uvchol me’odecha.” What we are really saying is: You shall love Adonai your God, with all your mind, with all your body and with all your might. (Me’odecha doesn’t really mean “your might,” either, but we’ll save that for a different sermon.) So we have to ask, How do you love God with your mind and your body?
Maybe you think that the mind part is easy. We love God by thinking about God, by embracing God with our thoughts and with our emotions—mind stuff, not body stuff. But I think you can make a good case for the body, too. We love God in the way that we act in the world—by the way we hold the hand of a sick person, by the way we hug our children, by the way that rush to help a person in need. Human beings show their love for each other not just with thoughts and emotions, but also through the things that we do physically and materially. In the same way, we can love God with our bodies.
This is an idea that may seem intuitive to people who are used to using their bodies expressively. Dancers, athletes and practitioners of martial arts or yoga may understand that our bodies are equal to our minds in their ability to experience spirituality. I think that this is part of what the words of the Shema are trying to say to us. “You shall love God with all of your body.”
Worship in Judaism sometimes appears to be all about the mind. We recite prayers that convey specific thoughts and emotions. We try to focus in prayer with our minds and concentrate on our lives and how God enters into our life. We study the words of our texts in a way that is very centered on the mind.
But worship, too, is something that involves our bodies. When this congregation stands as a community and holds hands for the Shema, that is a way of praying with our bodies. You may know that there are other places in the service where we have other, more traditional, forms of praying with our bodies.
I often find that the traditional choreography of the service is one of the things that people are most curious about. People see the bowing and hand waving that goes with Jewish prayer and they assume that, somehow, they are not “doing it right” if they don’t know all the right moves. So, tonight, I thought I would take a little time to talk about how we love God with all of our bodies, as the words of the Shema tell us, in the way we move our bodies during the service.
You may have seen that when some people light the Shabbat candles, they wave their hands over the light three times before reciting the blessing. This is a vey old custom. It comes from the idea that, as Shabbat begins, God’s presence is resting in the space above the flames. After lighting the candles, many people wave their hands over them, drawing God’s presence toward them, so that they can feel closer to God as they recite the words of the blessing.
Many people then put their hands over their eyes as they recite the blessing, and this, too, has a special meaning. Traditionally, one does not kindle fire on Shabbat. This is the reason why the blessing for lighting the candles has to be said after the candles are already lit. Once the blessing is made, it is Shabbat and one is no longer supposed to kindle fire. (Almost every other blessing is recited before the action it blesses, not after). This is why many people cover their eyes as they make the blessing. They light the candles (but pretend that they haven’t), cover their eyes, make the blessing, and then, when they uncover their eyes — presto! The candles are already lit and Shabbat has begun.
The waving of the hands, the way we cover the hands over the eyes, is part of the choreography of prayer. It helps us to feel God’s presence and the presence of Shabbat, not just with our minds, but also with our bodies.
Here is another moment of movement in worship that you may have wondered about. Many people, as they begin the T’filah, take three small steps forward on the words, “Adonai, sefatai tiftach,” “Adonai, open up my lips.” They then bow on the the opening words of the first blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai,” “Blessed are You, Adonai.” At the end of the T’filah, many people take three small steps backward and bow to the left and then to the right.
The T’filah is the prayer in which we imagine ourselves standing before God as if we had the privilege of an audience with a king. When people take three steps forward and bow at the beginning of the T’filah, they are imitating the way that a person would enter the presence of a king in ancient times. We indicate our humility before God by bowing as we come before the source of our life who has the power of life and death over us. As we take leave of the king at the end of the prayer, we do the same thing in reverse, bowing to left and to right and walking away from the king without turning our backs. (You don’t ever turn your back to a king!)
It’s not that we think of God as a literal king. Rather, by moving our bodies to this ancient choreography, we rouse a certain sense of awe within ourselves and experience with our whole being how profoundly we feel about God’s presence in our lives. The movement becomes part of the prayer and makes the words we say resound more deeply within our souls.
“V’ahavta eit Adonai Elohecha, b’chol levavcha, uvchol nafshecha, uvchol me’odecha.”
“You shall love Adonai Your God, with all your mind, and, also, with all of your body and your being.” As we strive toward holiness in our lives, it is good to know that we are not just limited to experiencing God with our thoughts. We are more than our overgrown human brains. We are also bodies—bodies that can move gracefully and feel deeply, bodies that can be expressive and gentle, bodies that can be proud and noble, bodies that can love.
We strive to experience God in all the ways that God has allowed us to. We love God with our bodies.
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