Inside the Circle and Making Connections

Shabbat Shuva Drash by Rabbi Daniel Lev

Today is Shabbos Shuva, the Shabbat of Returning, which falls on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur. As many of you know, teshuvah is the Jewish way of returning back to a path in life that leads us to become better versions of who we are. It also re-aligns us with our Creator and with a more meaningful and spiritual way of living in this world….at least while we’re here. Shabbos Shuva is named after the first lines in the Haftara today, Hoshea 14:2 that says:


שׁ֚וּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד י-ה-ו-ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ׃ 

Return, O Israel, to HaShem your God,

By the way, for those of you who may not be familiar with the name “HaShem,” it is a name traditionally used for G-d – it means “The Name.” 

On Shabbos Shuva it is a traditional practice in many synagogues for the rabbi or a community member to give a lengthy and thoughtful drasha that resonates with the spirit of the High Holidays. I appreciate the privilege of sharing this Shabbos Shuva drasha with all of you today and, although, these talks usually run about 30-to-40 minutes I’ll make sure mine will be significantly shorter than that….

In a nutshell, we’ll look at two ways to understand how to relationship with G-d: One imagines HaShem above us and we exist separately below. The other allows us to have an intimate relationship with the Creator.

In honor of Moshe who sang his own drasha in Todays Torah portion Ha’zinu, I’ll start with this:


וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת י-ה-ו-ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃ 

You shall love HaShem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.


עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־י-ה-ו-ה בְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה׃ 

Serve HaShem with joy!


Here the Torah asks us to “love and serve” HaShem our G-d. But, what does the Torah mean here by “loving G-d?” What is she telling us about serving HaShem? And, what does loving and serving the Creator have to do with High Holidays?

Today I’m going to share with you several sources which address these questions – many of them derived from a mystical and psychological Shitah – “viewpoint.”

You could say that loving and serving G-d are connected, as we see here in  Deut 11:1 where it says: 


וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת י-ה-ו-ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֣ מִשְׁמַרְתּ֗וֹ וְחֻקֹּתָ֧יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֛יו וּמִצְוֺתָ֖יו כׇּל־הַיָּמִֽים׃ 


I’m going to translate this pasuk, this sentence, based on the understanding of the medieval commentator Ramban:


Love HaShem your G-d, and always protect those who G-d protects, and keep G-d’s laws, rules and commandments.


Here, Ramban, also called Nachmanides, says that the way to love G-d is to serve through caring for others and engaging in various forms of Torah practice. In other words: Loving G-d is the state of being we can reach when we serve G-d.

One way for us to love HaShem is through the genuine love and service we direct towards people, other living things and the planet. By dropping or limiting our egocentric attitudes in life we can bring ourselves into this love. One example comes from a nice Hin-Jew teacher named Richard Alpert who later took the name Ram Dass. Once, he was talking with his father about what he was going to charge for his eventual best-selling book: “Be Here, Now.” He wanted to set a fair price that would allow most people to buy to the book. His father, a very successful lawyer and corporate CEO, asked him, “What’s wrong Richard, don’t you want to make any money?” Now his father had recently worked very hard on a huge legal case for his brother-in-law, Henry, and they won a settlement. Ram Dass asked his father, “Wow, you worked a lot on that case, what did you charge Uncle Henry?” Father said, “What, are you crazy, I’m not going to charge Uncle Henry, he’s my brother-in-law.” Ram Dass said, “You see dad, that’s my predicament in setting a price for the book: Everyone is my Uncle Henry!” 

And so it is with Mitzvot that guide me to serve people and the planet from this place of love and care. As I engage in them, my separate self briefly disappears and I become connected on a soul level with the Great Soul of love…..and I’m not talking about James Brown!. 

The path of loving HaShem is also discussed by the great modern scholar of Judaism and Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Lewis Jacobs. He said that this love combines two perspectives. First, ideas on loving G-d are offered by the rabbis of the Talmud, who said it is “…less an attitude of mind or an emotional response than…a course of action.” Rabbi Jacobs said that the rabbis primarily understood this love to “…mean our engaging in of the precepts and the study of Torah.” So the rabbis reiterate the pasuk I shared earlier from Deuteronomy that tells us that we love HaShem by serving the Creator through Jewish practices.

Rabbi Jacobs said that the second perspective comes from some of Medieval commentators and especially from Jewish mystics who took literally the idea of “Loving HaShem.” This love occurs through D’veikut, through joining ourselves completely to the Holy One by means of our devotional yearning for connection through our practices. As Psalm 63:2 says:

אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֵלִ֥י אַתָּ֗ה אֲֽשַׁ֫חֲרֶ֥ךָּ צָמְאָ֬ה לְךָ֨ ׀ נַפְשִׁ֗י כָּמַ֣הּ לְךָ֣ בְשָׂרִ֑י ׃ 

God, You are my God; I search for You,

My soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You


A useful insight, that parallels Rabbi Jacob’s two perspectives, is offered by the Reform rabbi and Kabbalah scholar, Lawrence Kushner. He offers two visual metaphors that can shed some light on what love and service of G-d might look like. Regarding the first metaphor Rabbi Kushner draws a big circle at the top of a blackboard and says “Imagine that this is HaShem, the Creator of the universe.” Then he draws a teeny tiny circle far below the big one, which represents us and the world we live in. 

This dualistic view is what characterizes much of Western Religion, including Islam, Christianity and much of mainstream Judaism. You can clearly see this in our liturgy, for the most part: G-d is up there and we are down here – and never the twain shall meet.

The second metaphor derives from the Jewish mystical tradition and again begins with the big G-d circle drawn on the blackboard. But this metaphor differs from the first in that our teeny circle is drawn inside of Hashem’s big circle. Rabbi Kushner observes that the idea that we can become one with HaShem may sound closer to Eastern religion. However, he said even the great Kabbalah scholar, Professor Gershon Scholem pointed out that you can find this perspective in Judaism and other Western faiths. 

To paraphrase rabbi Kushner, he says that “The goal in that metaphor is not only pray to God or have God tell you what to do…” but to realize that the whole time that you do engage in Jewish practice “…contrary to all of your illusions (of separation)….you are a dimension of the divine, and, in moments of heightened spiritual awareness, the boundary line of (your teeny circle) momentarily dissolves….and (in that moment) it’s no longer clear where you end and God begins.” 

It’s akin to the feeling that a parent and child have when the parent is comforting the little one. As things calm down, it is difficult on the part of each know where their skin ends and the other’s begins.  That is the intimacy of what it’s like to love the Source of All Being. We can experience this through Jewish practices that eventually wake us up to the spiritual fact that all of us, deep down….are souls, neshama’s. We are each like a soulful drop of water that that can intermittently and temporarily dissolve within the vast spiritual Ocean of G-d. 

During this holiday period, which is kind of like a long Jewish Life rehab seminar, our Tradition reminds us that we need to realign ourselves with our devotional, learning, ritual and ethical practices. Most important are Mitzvot and Halachot, commandments and Jewish Law. According to our Tradition, we are judged by ourselves and by the Creator on how well we’ve been running our Jewish lives. 

You could say that the Talmudic rabbis taught us that during Yamim Noraim, these Awesome Days, HaShem takes on the combined role of Santa Claus and the prophet Elijah – both on steroids. The Creator evaluates how good we’ve been….how well we have or have not engaged in Jewish practices, such keep kosher or Shabbat, connecting with the community, studying Torah or caring for our fellow human beings and the Earth. We are all hoping that our sins have not prevented us from doing the Mitzvot well enough, or we are all hoping that we can decisively turn our lives around in Teshuva in order to make it into the Book of Life for another year. Of course, this an example of the perspective that we are a separate, teeny circle looking up towards G-d’s Big Circle…. and hoping that Daddy won’t spank.

But if we see ourselves as inside the Circle of HaShem we can have a more loving relationship with the Holy One through the Mitzvot. We can ask ourselves “what is a Mitzvah that we should follow it?” – According to the Talmud as well as the mystic leader of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, the word Mitzvah is related to the Aramaic word “tzavta,” which means “connection.” 

So, for example, if we look at a Mitzvah-blessing like, “Blessed are you Hashem our G-d….who commanded us to light the Shabbat candles” – this can also be understood to say, “…Who connects us through lighting the Shabbat candles.” Connects us to what? Connects us to the Big Circle of HaShem. And through our practice of these commandment-connections we can also realize who we really are on a soul level.

A great illustration of this comes from a Hindu story where Ram, who is an incarnation of G-d, asks Hanuman, the Monkey king, “Who are you?” The Wise Ape tells Ram: “When I don’t who I am, I serve you; when I know who I am, I am you.” 

Some of our Jewish mystical masters hint at this. To paraphrase them: “When I don’t know that I am a soul who intimately resonates with HaShem, the Great Soul, then I can see myself as outside of HaShem and serve the Creator by engaging in devotional Mitzvot and caring for other beings. And as I use my kavvana, my deep intention, in this service, then my teeny circle can temporarily dissolve within the Great Love Circle of G-d

As we do the work of Yom Kippur from this “circle within the circle” perspective we can also become aware of what a CHEIT – a sin – truly is and how to TASHUV, how to return from it – in a way, to return home to who we are deep down.  As some of us know, the word “CHEIT” is related to the word for target. So, a sin can be understood as missing the mark. One kind of mark that we may miss is the opportunity to use our Jewish practices, like prayer, to go inside and immerse in our own soul place. That place is where we know who we are and what we are doing here. We miss that mark by making our goals to earn mitzvah points or pleasing a cranky Deity.  

So tomorrow night, on erev Yom Kippur, we can begin to take the time to examine our actions, to see how much we are missing this mark, to decide to enter the Great Circle through our service and love. As it says in Psalm 27: 4

אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת י-ה-ו-ה אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית י-ה-ו-ה כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹעַם י-ה-ו-ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵֽיכָלֽוֹ׃ 

One thing I ask of HaShem, one thing I seek

To dwell in Your abode all the days of my life,

To gaze upon Your Beauty

And to meditate within Your Sanctuary.

In conclusion, I want to bless you and please bless me back that we all will love and serve in whatever ways we can with the intention of giving ourselves over to the experience of joyfully dissolving into the Holy One from time to time, and may we return from that knowing who we are in the deepest way. Finally, I bless you to be able to treat this planet and all who live here as your Uncle Henry.

Shabbat Times