Devotion: The Love of God

The level of service through love is called by the name of “Yisrael”. That is: yashir El – sing to God – that he gives thanks and praises God with songs and praises with great love and devotion. – Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk [1]

“An image cannot be impressed on bare glass, but only on glass stained with a black solution, as in photography. The black solution is devotion to God.” – Sri Ramakrishna [2]


Devotion brings joy to God – it brings joy to us. It creates a flow of creative energy. Devotion raises our consciousness and opens our heart.

The Ethics of the Fathers 1:2 declares that the world stands on three things: Torah (study or wisdom), avodah (worship) and gimilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness).

Worship with devotion is one of the forces that enable the world to endure. It keeps a flow of energy and love running between heaven and earth – between God and humanity. We need wisdom. We need good acts. But we also need to have worship: we need to awaken our heart.

Swami Ashokananda of the Ramakrishna Order used to say: “Devotion! Nothing can be accomplished without devotion…no matter what path you follow, you have to have devotion. Devotion is a movement in the heart, a cry of the heart. Otherwise, it is like trying to start a car without any gasoline.” [3]

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches that the capacity for devotion is a unique Divine gift. God who is Infinite, without form and above all description, allows us to pray to Him by calling on Him as if He has form, as if He has attributes like a human being so that we can thereby bind ourselves to Him.[4]

Swami Papa Ramdas was a great advocate of the path of bhakti or devotion. He explains why this way of approach figures so prominently in the spiritual life.

“Love begins to manifest itself in us from our childhood. The child loves and is deeply devoted to its mother and father. As he grows up, his circle of love is gradually widened and he becomes attached to friends and relations besides his family members. This love and devotion to mother, father, etc., has only to be purified and directed towards God. Thus we should look upon Him alone as mother, father, friend, etc. This is a natural and easy process. We start from duality and end in unity.” [5]

In Judaism, devotion is expressed through the fulfillment of the mitzvot and in prayer – avodah shebalev or worship in the heart. The more we pour our love into our practices, the more they will come alive.

The Zohar teaches that our chalukah derabanan, the garment we wear after death, is created through the mitzvot – the positive spiritual acts which we perform. However, only our lower garment is formed in this manner. Our higher garments are woven out of the devotion and yearning that we feel in our heart. Without this yearning, we cannot access the portal into the higher realms. [6]

The Baal Shem Tov put tremendous emphasis on devotion. One might even say that this stress on devotion was at the core of the Hasidic revolution. In one of his teachings the Baal Shem declares that even if we get the words wrong when we are praying, or falter in the musical incantation for reading the Torah, if we act with sincere devotion, then our worship will still be acceptable before God. [7]

“Once the Baal Shem had his disciple Rabbi Wolf Kitzes learn the kavvanot [mystical intentions] of blowing the ram’s horn, so that, on New Year’s Day, he might announce before him the order of the sounds. Rabbi Wolk learned the kavvanot but, for greater security, noted everything down on a slip of paper which he hid in his bosom. This paper, however, dropped out soon after and he never noticed it. They say this was the work of the Baal Shem. Now when it was time to blow, Rabbi Wolf looked for his slip in vain. Then he tried to remember the kavvanot, but he had forgotten everything. Tears rose to his eyes, and weeping, he announced the order of the sounds quite simply without referring to the kavvanot at all. Later the Baal Shem said to him: ‘There are many halls in the king’s palace, and intricate keys open the doors, but the axe is stronger than all of these, and no bolt can withstand it. What are kavvanot compared to one really heartfelt grief!’” [8]

Rebbe Natan of Nemirov teaches that living with devotion changes the way we experience every day. Psalm 91:16 states: “With long life [lit. days] I will satisfy him.” If our worship is dry, if it is done with a small mind – mochin dekatnut, then the days will be short and our disciplines will seem overwhelming. However, if we add the water of devotion to our practice, then our worship will open up into mochin degadlut – the big mind. Our prayers will then flow forth effortlessly, and our days will become vital, full and alive. We lengthen our days, Rebben Natan is telling us, by filling them with spiritual devotion. [9]

According to the Hasidic Master, Nachum of Chernobyl, devotion or yearning for God is called Eliyahu or Elijah, and its fulfillment is referred to as tikkun mashiach – the fixing of the Messiah. [10] In the beginning, Rebbe Nachum explains, the soul of Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man, was composed of the six hundred thousand souls of all of Israel. After the fall from Eden, however, this unity of being was shattered, and we became six hundred thousand separate individual sparks, each going his or her own way.

The work of the Messiah, he believes, is to rebuild the koma shlaimah – the original full stature – of the human soul. He accomplishes this task by reestablishing the unity of consciousness and oneness of being among all the people of Israel (and we can add – all of humankind).

It is the efforts of Elijah which makes this mission possible. Elijah or Eliyahu is el yahu = to Yahu – to Yud Heh Vav – the first three letters of the Divine Name. Elijah was a master of fire. He brought fire down from heaven at Mount Carmel to reawaken the people’s love and awe before their God. It is Elijah’s fire of devotion which is the glue that binds the world (the lower Heh) to God (Yud Heh Vav). Our devotion is what makes the Divine Name complete.

Elijah the prophet is the forerunner to the Messiah because spiritual arousal is an essential prerequisite for receiving the Messiah and his teaching. Without this inner passion, his teaching will fall on deaf ears, and we will not be able to produce the necessary “spiritual fire” to implement his words and ideals.

A teacher I knew used to say: “A person without prayer is like a flower without fragrance.” Devotion is essential at both the beginning and the culmination of our spiritual journey. It helps us get started in our practice and carries us to our goal.

Devotion gives our spiritual life its beauty and fragrance. It kindles the fire of the Divine spark within. It opens up the gates of heaven and sends our prayers winging toward God.

 

Copyright 2013, by Yoel Glick



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk, Likutei Shoshana
  2. ‘M’, the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, as translated by Swmai Nikhilananda,  p. 244
  3. Sister Gargi, A Disciple’s Journal – p. 110
  4. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Lekutei Etzot: Tefilah # 29
  5. Swami Satchidanada, Gospel of Swami Ramdas, Vol I, p. 59
  6. Zohar II 201A, Torah portion vaYakhel
  7. Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud haTefilah
  8. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book I, p. 64 – “The Axe”
  9. Rebbe Natan of Nemirov, Likutei Halachot
  10. Nachum of Chernobyl, Meor Einayim, Torah portion Pinchas