Guaranteeing a Good Year
Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called is Shabbat Shuva (the Shabbat of Return).
The Amidah of the High Holiday prayers contains the prayer, "You chose us from all the nations, You loved us and You desired us." Although this prayer is phrased in the past tense, it also implies that God continually chooses, loves, and desires the Jewish people.
The commentator Dover Shalom explains that the three expressions used in this prayer correspond to three levels of love. The lowest level is when we are loved because we are better than the other available options. Although we may be flawed, we are superior in comparison to the alternatives. The middle level is when we are loved because we are inherently good. The highest level is when we are loved unconditionally, for no reason at all. If there was a reason, it would be the reason that was loved, not us!
The phrase "You chose us from all the nations" corresponds to the lowest level of love, when we are loved only in comparison to the alternative options. The Talmud (Avodah Zara 2b, on Deut. 33:2) teaches that God initially offered the Torah to the nations of the world, all of whom refused to accept it. Only the Jewish people eagerly responded, "We will do and we will hear!" (Exodus 24:7). Based on this positive response, God gave the Torah to us.
[The Jews could therefore more accurately be called the Choosing People, not the Chosen People. We chose God first, and He reciprocated. From the Jewish perspective, God will choose anyone who chooses Him.]
The phrase "You loved us" corresponds to the second level of love, when we are loved due to our intrinsic goodness. Not only are we preferable over other options; we are actually inherently lovable! Finally, the phrase "You desired us" corresponds to the highest level of love: inexplicable, absolute love that does not depend on reason.
The love between God and the Jewish people is compared to the love between a husband and a wife. The Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:1) teaches that there are three ways for a marriage to legally take effect: through a monetary transaction, a contract, or consummation. God married the Jewish people in all three ways. The Egyptian riches that washed ashore after the Jewish people crossed the Sea represent a monetary transaction (see Sefer HaMakneh on Kiddushin, Pischa Zeira). The Jewish people received our marriage contract at Mount Sinai, when God gave us the Torah; and our marriage was consummated during the time that the Jewish people lived within the privacy of the Divine Clouds of Glory.
THREE LEVELS OF LOVE
We can understand these three conditions for marriage as representing the three levels of love. God does not fulfill just one or two of these conditions; He sends us an outpouring of love, showing that He wants to connect with us in every possible way. The mitzvah of tefillin, in which a strap is wrapped three times around the middle finger, also expresses this idea. With each loop, we recite a verse beginning with the words, "I am betrothed to you" (Hoshea 2:21-22). The three loops that are formed look like three rings, representing marriage and the three levels of love. Every day, on an ongoing basis, God chooses us, loves us and desires us.
The preface to the Otzer Tefillot states that the main thrust of the High Holiday prayers is for God to reveal Himself to all nations and peoples, thereby eliminating the desecration of His name and increasing its sanctification. Perhaps our Sages chose to word the prayers this way so that we could attempt to reciprocate God's love and devotion to us. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when our very lives are hanging in the balance, the greatest demonstration of love is our ability to rise above our personal concerns and devote ourselves solely to the revelation of God's glory. When God sees that we are mature enough to disregard our own needs and put His will above all else, He will do anything for us. This is the best way to secure for ourselves a sweet new year.
Nevertheless, our intentions must be sincere. The Talmud (Baba Kama 92a) teaches that a person who prays on behalf of another when he himself needs the same thing will be answered first. This does not mean to say that two poor people can make a plan to pray for each other so that they'll both get answered fast! In such a scenario, neither person is actually praying for the other; each is praying for himself, while using the other person as a device. The same is true with our intentions in the High Holiday prayers. We must not fool ourselves into thinking we are praying for the manifestation of God's glory, when really we just want to guarantee a good year for ourselves. Our ability to transcend our personal concerns is precisely what allows God to fulfill them.
As we approach the Day of Judgment, may we learn how to take ourselves out of the center and focus on God, and through this ultimate demonstration of love, may we be inscribed in the Book of Good Life.