Fear and love are the two wings of a bird, and a bird cannot fly with just one wing.” – Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, based on the Zohar
We love love. We hate fear. Yet every attempt to love inevitably involves some fear. In the Tanya (an 18th-century collection of Hasidic writings), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady notes that with every move toward love, fear arises: “Before awakening the love of God, you must awaken fear and raise it to consciousness in your heart or mind.” Without addressing our fears, he says, we can’t actually love. And so, he offers meditative exercises for practicing both loving and fearing.
Schneur Zalman’s object of love and fear is God. Loving God is our soul longing to merge with divinity; it is like a drop of water longing to slip into the ocean from where it came and where, in truth, it has always belonged. Love, by its nature, accepts unconditionally. Love breaks through and transcends boundaries. As the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm argued in his 1956 classic, The Art of Loving, in love, we long for a union that takes us toward a real or imagined merger — as a state of being, or of grace, or of being connected and even entwined with another. Without connection, we suffer intense anxiety.
The irony — and often tragedy — of love is that when pulled toward merger, we inevitably sense an intense fear of separation, or a fear of the loss of the self. If we don’t address those fears and anxieties, they thwart our attempts to love, to get closer. In one meditative exercise, Schneur Zalman asks us to practice feeling and imagining that our fear is grounded in the ultimate fear of disconnection and alienation. He goes on to teach that it helps to name the fear and, in fact, we must do so if we are to merge and love.
In another meditative exercise, Schneur Zalman advocates a particular way of practicing self-sacrifice, or mesirat nefesh, as a way to approach love. He frames self-sacrifice not as a devaluing of ourselves, but rather as a form of visualization: imagining that we are returning our soul to God, intending that our drop has returned to that ocean. In Jewish ritual practice, each morning we are invited to recite, “My God, the soul you have given me is pure… You breathed it into me and you will ultimately take it from me.” This is not only a gratitude practice for the return of the soul each day upon waking. It also imagines that each night we surrender our soul to God — the One who put our soul into our body when we were born and who will one day take it again at the end of our life. Schneur Zalman interprets this prayer as this visualization practice and assertion — that each and every moment throughout the day, whenever we remember to, we might try to merge our soul with that unity.
The paradox of love and fear persists even in this rather abstract and esoteric practice. While love is the yearning for, or actualization of merger, only by approaching God as an “other” can we then merge. Schneur Zalman points this out in the voice of the psalmist: “To You, God, I raise my nefesh/soul.” If God is an “other,” a “you,” we inevitably begin from a position of separateness — along with the inherent anxieties that can accompany separation. Ironically, only from a separate place can I “raise my soul” and consider merger. Perhaps that is the very point of the practice. Like a Mobius strip, we may always twist and turn between separating and merging, separating and merging, exercising our ability to be content with both. That is a strengthening that ultimately can help us to get closer — to God, or to any beloved.
Rabbi Lee Moore is director of Jewish and Organizational Learning for Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. She studies the Tanya regularly with rabbis Ebn Leader, Seth Wax, and Elisha Herb. She is also the campus rabbi for Hillel at Kent State University.