I was delighted to spend time this afternoon with our Fifth Grade class. They invited me to choose one of my favorite prayers, and so I went with Ahavat Olam (the second blessing preceding the Shema in our evening liturgy).
On the surface, Ahavat Olam celebrates God's everlasting love of the Jewish People. I got a chance to engage the students around the sources of love in their life (everlasting and otherwise). And the students reflected about the relationships they were lucky enough to have with parents, and also with grandparents. Several shared candidly about the loss of a grandparent, and the sense of love that transcends our time here on Earth. Others thought about sources of joy and love in their and their friends' lives that we don't often explore with seriousness. The relationship that one student's friend had with an imaginary friend was a candid admission that love and meaning come in many different forms in our lives beyond the ones that are most 'traditional' or 'typical.'
Although the literal meaning of the prayer is very much focused on the relationship between God and the Jewish People - as liberal Jews, we also think of that relationship with God as a metaphor for the relationships we have with one another. Just as God loves us...so too do we have an obligation to love others. To that end, the students and I grappled with what it means for us to love one another unconditionally/everlastingly. Given the prayer's emphasis on the way that God loves the Jewish People, we also spoke explicitly about our belief that our love for others is most certainly not limited to other Jews. Rather, we spoke about the Torah's assertion at the very beginning of Book of Genesis that every single person is created in God's image, and that as a result, we have a Jewish obligation to love everyone equally, regardless of their skin color, country of origin, or religious affiliation.