In this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, Moses is in the midst of giving his final words of instruction to the Children of Israel before his death. In an effort to ensure loyalty of the people of Israel toward the God of Israel, he reminds them of all that God has done for them.
After reciting the Ten Commandments for the second time, Moses instructs the people that they must love God.
The commandment “to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” is a theme that runs through the Book of Deuteronomy and is considered to be a cornerstone of Jewish tradition and faith. It is recited together with the Shema during services and is considered by rabbinic tradition as one of the 613 mitzvot.
The ways in which we experience and express our love for God can impact on many areas of our lives. Indeed, every human relationship can be understood as a reflection of our relationship with the divine.
The rabbinic sages grappled with the meaning of this particular text and the many issues it raises. They asked questions such as “What does it mean to love God?” and “How does one express love for God?” Over the centuries, rabbis, commentators and poets offered many different interpretations and responses.
The biblical commentator Rashi pointed out that the Torah itself explains how we are to love God by including the words “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” He suggested that “with all your heart” means we should serve God with all our powers for goodness, compassion and charity. “With all your soul” means we should be ready to give our lives, if necessary, for the principles of our faith. “With all your might” means we should be willing to use our property and wealth to perform acts of charity to promote the survival of our people.
The Chasidic Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that we show our love for God by loving other people. He wrote: “Whether a person really loves God can be determined by the love he/she bears toward others” because we are all created b’tzelem Elohim — in God’s image (Telushkin, “Jewish Wisdom,” page 176). When we show love and respect toward others, we are also showing love and respect toward God.
Some of the early rabbinic interpreters suggested that the love of God is expressed through mitzvot — deeds. Just as we are commanded to love God, so are we commanded to fulfill the mitzvot found in the Torah.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut agrees and writes: “Each mitzvah done in the right spirit is an act of loving God. (Plaut, ‘The Torah, A Modern Commentary,’ ” pages 1370-1371)
So, we can interpret and understand what is meant by the command to “love God.” And yet, Peter and Ellen Allard, the writers of the URJ’s “Got Shabbat,” a resource for parents of young children note that the concept of a commandment to love can be a hard one to relate to. They ask: “Is it possible to love when the impetus to do so comes from an outside command? And even if we were to consider the possibility of being able to do so, can the love be sustained when not driven by ones’ emotions?”
Their answer? That the words of the V’ahavta, commanded by God, instructed by Moses to the Israelites, assume that people are born with the capacity to love God.
But like anything we do, the opportunity to practice makes our task come that much more naturally to us. Praying regularly and performing other mitzvot present us with the opportunity, day in and day out, to practice loving God. And by practicing, we get better at what we’re trying to do. In other words, with practice, we too can love God.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)