Torah, or more broadly, Jewish civilization, is a tool of awareness. It keeps us awake to the world around us and demands that we respond with holy consciousness.

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אַהֲבָה רַבָּה אֲהַבְתָּֽנוּ יי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, חֶמְלָה גְדוֹלָה וִיתֵרָה חָמַֽלְתְּ עָלֵֽינוּ.

You have loved us with abundant love, ONE CREATING, our God; Your compassion for us is a grand, extraordinary compassion.

-From the Siddur, the blessing before the morning Shema

What is the connection between divine love, “extraordinary compassion,” and Torah, or Jewish learning and life, that becomes the focus of the blessing before the Shema??  

There’s another ancient teaching about “extraordinary love” that might shed light on what the authors of this blessing had in mind.  In Pirkei Avot (a collection of rabbinic aphorisms from the beginning of the 3rd century CE), we find:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם. חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לוֹ שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ט) כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם.

Rabbi Akiva used to say: The human being is beloved in that they were created in the Image [of God].  It is an expression of extraordinary love that they were made aware that they were created in the Image, as it is written (Genesis 9:6), “for human beings were made in the image of God.”

-Pirkei Avot 3:18 (14 in some editions)

These are the only two rabbinic era text I know that speak of love that is יתרה – extraordinary.  According to Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot, that extraordinary love lies in the granting of awareness.  So, too, with our morning prayers: It is amazing that God creates the heavenly lights and the universe as described in the blessing that precedes this one. It’s extremely amazing (a sign of extraordinary love) that we are aware of the universe, it’s commanding Otherness, and our ability to learn and dialogue about it.  

Torah, or more broadly, Jewish civilization, is a tool of awareness. It keeps us awake to the world around us and demands that we respond with holy consciousness.

Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz graduated from RRC in 1997 and serves Temple Bnai Israel in Willimantic, Connecticut