Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem is the One and Only. You shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources. And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.
–Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (Stone Edition Chumash)
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
–Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)
While many Christians firmly believe that the teachings of Jesus replaced the teachings of Moses, we see here a clear and compelling illustration that not only did Jesus draw what he taught from the Torah, he created the rock-solid foundation of everything he taught from the Torah and specifically the Shema, the most holy of all the Jewish prayers.
I’ve written about this before. I’ve written that loving God cannot be divorced from loving other people and if we say that we do love God with all of our hearts, then we must love other people in tangible ways, providing for the needy, feeding the hungry, showing compassion for the grieving.
But is behavior all that God commands?
This week’s reading contains “Shema Yisrael” — “Hear, oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” [Deut. 6:4] And what is the next verse? “And you will love HaShem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The commentaries explain that this commands every Jewish person to be so consumed by love of G-d that he or she is prepared to give up his or her last penny, or, in fact, his or her life…
But how can the Torah demand that a person love? How do you require emotion?
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“For the Love of G-d”
Commentary on Torah Portion Va’ethanan
How can God command us to experience an emotion for Him? How can God actually command us to love Him? I can see how He can command us to exhibit various behaviors or refrain from other behaviors. Feed the hungry. Don’t carry a grudge. But love? We know when we love someone, but it’s not as if my wife or children can actually order me to love them. I just do.
One answer is to consider “love as a verb.” That is, instead of focusing on that warm and fuzzy feeling that is sometimes associated with romantic love for example, we can focus on what we do that results from that feeling. Now take it a step further. Don’t wait for the feeling. Just start behaving in a loving manner by doing all of the things that indicate love.
Rabbi Menken continues:
There are two ways to develop an emotion like love. The first is to appreciate everything that has been given to you. Gratitude towards a person, such as a parent or spouse, makes you love them more, and so to with G-d.
The other goes still deeper — and, at its root, offers one reason why Judaism involves so many Commandments. When you do something for someone, that in and of itself instills love for that person in your own heart. Parents, especially, see every day that love in the heart is enhanced by love in action, by investing energy and effort into a child.
Whether between man and man or man and G-d, each and every day we are offered countless opportunities to choose to follow G-d’s Will. And when we follow His Will with a deep understanding of His love for us, and motivated by our love for Him, then that causes us to love Him more.
How do we love God? As it turns out, the feeling may not always come before the action. Yes, we may experience a sense of gratitude when we realize all that God has done for us and in turn, respond by experiencing the feeling of “love” for Him. More often though, our response to God is not a feeling but an action. In this case, since there’s nothing we can really do for God since He has no needs and for God, nothing is missing, we show love for God by showing love for people.
This is how God can command us to love Him and this is why Jesus fused the two commandments of loving God and loving others together in such a way that they are always joined.
The more we obey the commandments, the more we show love for other people, and thus, the more we show love for God, using our emotions, our spirit, and our tangible resources.
A few days ago, I mentioned that for a Jew, studying Torah was an act of loving God and as Rabbi Menken says:
The Sages tell us that “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” When we study G-d’s Torah, we observe His Commandment to do so, we perceive His incredible wisdom, and by doing so with love, we increase our love of G-d and His Torah at the same time.
While Christians do study the Bible as a way to learn more about our faith and to draw closer to God, we don’t typically conceptualize the act of study, either alone or with a group, as an act of love.
Maybe that’s a good idea since if we did, we might be less motivated to actually get away from our books and our computers, and actually do something for somebody else. And after all, there are enough pundits, religious and otherwise, spouting off in the blogosphere or in social networking venues such as twitter and Facebook (and gosh, did I just describe myself?).
On the other hand, studying is by far, the safer option. Here’s why.
At times there is so much suffering in the world that a sensitive person finds it difficult to tolerate. The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzhak Zev Soloveitchik, applied the following Talmudic statement as his advice for such people in such times: “He who wants to live should act as if he were dead.”
There are times when human suffering is so great that a person who feels the suffering of others will simply not be able to continue living. While we have an obligation to feel the suffering of others, we should protect ourselves from overdoing it and destroying ourselves.
At times, said the Brisker Rav, we should adopt an attitude as if we were no longer alive and only then will we be able to exist.
Rabbi Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness, p.257
It isn’t easy to suffer. It’s also not easy to watch someone else suffer. Yes, there are things that we can and must do to alleviate the suffering of others, but let’s face it, we can’t always help. If someone is suffering from terrible cancer and the sometimes worse effects of chemotherapy treatment, what can we do? We can clean their house, cook food for them, do their yardwork, drive them to medical appointments, but we can’t miraculously cure their cancer or make the hideous side effects of chemo go away. We can pray and pray with all of our heart and soul that God will provide a complete physical and spiritual healing from Heaven for this person, but often, we don’t see that healing arriving anytime soon or at all, at least not in the matter that we desire.
So we should stop feeling? We should stop caring? Even if we could do that, and even if that would protect our own emotions, it would also stop us from expressing our concern for the living and the dying. How can we do that, just go through the motions of helping as if we were a machine?
Should we then stop helping because it is too painful or, Heaven forbid, because we might feel that our help isn’t appreciated enough?
Don’t regret good deeds when you end up suffering. In every business there are negative aspects. When you do acts of kindness, realize in advance there are likely to be some unpleasant aspects and accept them.
Realize that when you help others you are helping yourself. You will find it easier to tolerate difficulties.
-Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch
Shiurey Da’as, p.116
Rabbi Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness, p.254
How ironic that this all comes full circle. We desire to love God, so we love others by helping them. Now we learn that by helping another person, even when providing that help causes us to suffer as well, we are also helping ourselves. So to love God is to love others…and to love ourselves. Maybe that’s why the commandment for loving others says, “and you should love your neighbor as yourself.”
I sometimes regret that saying the Shema twice daily is only for the Jews. At one time, I also recited the Shema, but that was another lifetime, so to speak. That was when I believed that God opened the doorway to the Sinai covenant so wide, that everyone was supposed to walk through. Now I realize that my doorway to God is provided exclusively by Jesus Christ and it is through Him and what I think of as the “Messianic covenant” that I am alive in the Lord.
But that doesn’t make me a Jew.
However, it does make me a disciple of the Master and as I continue learning how to love God, I realize that He loves me too, and far, far more than I could ever be able to love Him.
As a father is merciful towards his children, so has Hashem shown mercy to those who fear Him. For He knew our nature; He is mindful that we are dust. Frail man, his days are like grass; like a sprout of the field, so he sprouts. When a wind passes over it, it is gone, and its place recognizes it no more. But the kindness of Hashem is forever and ever upon those who fear Him, and His righteousness is upon children’s children, to those who keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commands to fulfill them. –Psalm 103:13-18 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
Of course, the Psalmist was writing about the ancient Israelites and the commandments of the Torah, so perhaps I’m taking liberties in applying his words to we Christians and particularly to myself. But the teachings of Jesus are replete with words of love for his disciples and indeed for humanity, as the famously quoted John 3:16 attests. I have no fear that by God loving the Jewish people, He loves everybody else any less, for God’s love is as infinite as His Being.
And so as He loves, we should also love, or at least we should love to the limits of our human abilities. We are commanded to love Him and we are commanded to love each other. By this we realize that God loves us and that we are more than just grass and dust, though our lives are just as fragile.
If you are Jewish and you are observant, you already have a siddur and pray the Shema twice a day in accordance with the commandment. If you are Christian, you probably have never even seen a siddur; a Jewish prayer book, and up until today, you may not have even heard of the Shema. If you have the opportunity, just once, find a siddur, open to the portion that contains the Shema, and read it to yourself and perhaps just once, even read it to God. Although we are not Israel, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God by the merit of our Master and King and by His merit, we are commanded to…
…love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources. Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.
from the Shema