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V'Hafta: and you shall love

I have been gifted with the temporary stewardship of a friend’s home in Sebastopol, California, a treasure of rolling hills now green and therefore glorious to me.

A few minutes ago I was enjoying my dinner in the rich, red-saturated light of almost evening when a herd of deer walked into my line of sight. Immediately I heard in my head,

V’a-havta Eit Ado-nai Elo-he-cha

B’chal L’vav-cha U-ve-chal

Naf-she-cha U-ve-chal Me’o-de-cha.

They are the opening lines of a prayer I have loved since first hearing it as a child in my Reform Jewish temple in Schenectady, NY. The v’hafta prayer is an extension of the central Jewish prayer, the Shema, which calls us to listen up. To be aware of the unity of all life. This extension tells us to love all of it.

I loved it then and it entrances me still chiefly because of the rhythm of the spoken lines and the chanted and sung versions I have heard.

Here’s the traditional version I grew up with, sung more recently:

V’a-havta Eit Ado-nai Elo-he-cha

B’chal L’vav-cha U-ve-chal

Naf-she-cha U-ve-chal Me’o-de-cha.

translates as “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The prayer goes on to urge us to keep this love front and center at all times, at home, on the road, in all the moments of our lives.

I fell in love with the next version when I first heard it several years ago, a contemporary setting composed by Jessalynn Levine; the video was recorded in my congregation, Ner Shalom of Cotati, California. In the clip I’ve created from the longer video of the whole service, Jessalynn is on the left, Rabbi Irwin Keller is next, and on the right is musician Sheridan Gold; fellow musician Suzanne Shanbaum is below:

Jessalynn’s version goes:

“All your love, All your soul, and you shall love.

All your soul, All you are, and you shall love.”

The deer brought all of this into me: my love for the All, my heart’s joy recognizing love. As I heard it in my head, aware of the traditional translation, I examined “You shall love the Lord your God…” as if it were an essential drop under a microscope. “The Lord my God?” No, my heart doesn’t leap like the deer in the meadow beyond the window through which I saw them. “The Lord thy God” never made sense to me, not ever. And perhaps because I never was forced to believe those words literally, I always felt free and comfortable to create my own meaning for them as code. I’ve tried to create an acronym, but nothing works.

And that’s OK. I love. I don’t love everyone and everything personally, but my body quickens with recognition of holiness often as I sit in my house, as I go about my business, as I drive through fields and city streets.

The book I'm reading currently is the very moving The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. In it, Esme, the heroine, gives birth to a child whom she cannot keep, and as I read the first words Esme thought about this baby she would not name, I burst into tears.

“They were all there: Ditte and Beth, Sarah and the midwife. They watched as I nursed. They heard Her suckling as I heard Her suckling, but they couldn’t feel the strength of Her suck or the weight of Her against my belly. They were oblivious to Her smell. For half an hour, Her little noises were the only sound in the room.” *

Her. The sacred capital H. The Holy, in Whose Presence nothing is ordinary.

My version of the V’hafta is this:




Let yourself love the Majestic One, the All That Is Was and Ever Will Be with all you are.

Love the smell of the toast in the morning and the warmth of the washing up water afterward and the stink of the garbage.

Love the dust mote sparkle that clouds your vison opening you to other worlds.

And all day long mumble to yourself the questions that plague you.

And interrupt yourself with exclamations of wonder that you get to wonder and complain because it means you are noticing the complexities of this precious life, the myriad possibilities of the One Who breathes us.

And tell all your stories and wonderments to your children and make sure they know their own stories will surpass yours and be the angel for them that says, “Grow, grow!”

And talk to those you wait with in grocery lines. Tell them something you notice of beauty in their being or their bright red shoes.

Every day and every evening say hello to those selves you are in all the worlds who listen to your sighs and marvel at how you manage to hope and stay sane in this density that needs flesh suits.


And say yes to everything you possibly can for there is a set of coordinates where you will feel the eternal embrace of the shining One Who brought you here and has breathed your every moment."


May it be so.


* Williams, Pip, The Dictionary of Lost Words, Ballantine Books, 2020, p.183

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