Our Bible, according to my estimation, tells us repetitively to love G-d. How can we comply with this mandate? I love my wife, kids, a few highly select friends who owe me money, even the cat. And I love lamb chops with garlic and lemon. But my Creator and Judge? There’s an inter-dimensional enigma here. An emotional warp. How can it be?
Strangely, Leigh Hunt, an English poet who probably never met a Jew, answered the question with a Jewish slant. He was a Londoner who lived 2,000 miles west of Chassidism’s headquarters in Poland. He was an aristocratic Englishman who, unlike his Polish contemporaries, wore a frock coat and did his best work on the Sabbath. He was a good Episcopalian, but somehow saw the world through Jewish eyes. The poet, in an inspired mood, wrote a work of 18 short lines, singing the same love-thy-neighbor theme that’s in our prayer book. Unintentionally, it is a very Jewish poem: an angel alights in the room of Abou Ben Adhem, an exemplary soul who:
“… saw within the moonlight in his room
making it rich like a lily in bloom.
An angel writing in a book of gold
the names of those who love the Lord.”
Abou Ben Adhem, in a flash, sits up in his bed only half-awake, but alert enough to know that his visitor is not his cousin from Cincinnati. Am I in your golden book, he wants to know. (“Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold.”) The angel sadly shakes his head.
But the man with a heart for humanity is not disheartened. “Well,” he says, “put me down as one who loves his fellow man.”
The angel notes the words of Abou Ben Adhem and disappears. Next night, he’s back in the dim bedroom “with a great wakening light” and his fateful list of those who love the Lord. “And lo, Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”
Loving your fellow man is like loving G-d, an insight initially proclaimed by our Tanach.
I’ve heard it said that the hardest part of being a good Jew is loving your fellow man. Now I didn’t originate that – it’s probably in the Talmud or maybe in the Tanach from some bitter prophet like Jeremiah. But, sadly, it’s true. Didn’t G-d Himself tell us we’re a stiff-necked people? Easy-going, sweet, lovable people don’t cure polio, don’t split the atom and don’t win Nobel prizes. They’re too busy displaying their love. There’s some furnace running in the core of great people that keeps them from election as most popular kid in school or fraternity/sorority presidency. You wouldn’t have enjoyed a beer and a bowl of pretzels with Einstein. Your Uncle Louie was probably much better at small talk.
In all the English vocabulary, the hardest word to define is love. It has no synonym, only antonyms. It thinly communicates when it describes our relationship with our fellow creatures, even the four-legged ones. But it miserably fails to describe our feeling to our Creator, even though I count the mandate more than 150 times in the Tanach.
In nature, love flows down, not up. A river originating in a mountain peak flows down to water the animal and plant life at its base. I’m convinced that parents, especially mothers, love their children more than kids love their parents. Survival of the species demands it. Our limited human understanding comes closest to defining divine love by loving our fellow human creatures. And, while we’re talking about love and G-d and man and English poets, let me remind you of Alexander Pope, another famous English Bard. He’s clearly on my side: “The proper study of mankind is man,” he says. “Presume not G-d to scan,” which to my understanding says the Creator lies beyond our telescopes.
What is love? We understand friendship. We know all about lust. We understand why your heart glows when your wife makes kreplach in chicken soup, your favorite. And even closer to your emotional warmth is the sensation of holding in your arms your newborn child. But words fail when we try to cozy up to the Lord. There is awe, respect and reverence, but love?
I’ve never met anyone who loved G-d and could explain that exotic emotion. It cannot be expressed any more than a fish expresses his love for water, his medium. Maybe the prophets and Leigh Hunt were on to something. Love thy fellow man. That, itself, is an awesome challenge. But may be the only road to the celestial palace.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer and humorist living in Huntsville, Ala. His website is wonderwordworks.com.