August 4th: Va’et’chanan
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Almost all of the 613 mitzvot commanded in the Torah deal with specific behaviors: Do not murder anyone. Make sure your weights and measures are accurate. Do not let your goring ox go rampaging around the village. Build a parapet on your flat-roofed house—so people do not fall off. Leave some of your crops unharvested so that the poor can have something to eat. Do not oppress the stranger.
A few however, are not at all specific, and figuring them out can be a challenge. Take, for example, the mitzvah in this week’s Torah portion that follows the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The command that we love God sounds like a wonderful thing, but what does it mean in terms of practical human behavior?
One could read this mitzvah as an instruction for an emotional attachment—a feeling of affection for the Eternal One. The problem, we all know, is that there is more to a relationship than feelings. In our human interactions, certain behaviors are required if we are to translate affection into relationships. This is the tack of many commentators in our Tradition as they take principles of human relationships and apply them to our relationship with God—showing us how we can love God.
A first principle is that it is hard to have a relationship without spending time together. One might say that spending time with God is inevitable: since God is omnipresent—that it is impossible to ever be away from God. Then again, we all know that relationships require more than physical proximity; they involve intentional connection. In the case of God, this means setting aside time on a regular basis to pay attention to God. We could pray, study the Bible, meditate, or involve God-consciousness in the little moments of life: saying a blessing upon awakening and when retiring, or before or after meals. This kind of love and attention do not take us away from life; rather, they remind us of the Presence of God in each and every moment of life. This kind of attention loves God.
Could this be why the Torah phrases the actual mitzvah of loving God in terms of a lifestyle of continuing awareness? Notice the way the Deuteronomy 6 passage continues: “These words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently unto your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates.” God consciousness is not an addition to life; it can be part of life.
A second principle is that mutual interest and shared values bind a relationship together. One does not have to agree with the other on everything, but mutual sympathy and understanding are at the base of any friendship. They also provide a locus for the relationship. In the case of God, we can find a lot about God’s values and hopes by studying the Holy Scriptures. There are lots of values, but a common theme running through the Torah is that God cares about us—and wants us to care about each other. Notice the way the Torah presents its ultimate expression of Divine instructions, the Ten Commandments (also in this Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 5). Whereas other ancient religious texts explain how to treat the gods right, the Ten Commandments are more interested in how we treat each other than in how we treat God. Numbers 1-4 are God-oriented:
“I am the Lord your God; don’t have any other gods besides Me.
Don’t make idols and worship them.
Don’t take God’s Name in vain.
Remember and observe the Sabbath Day.”
Numbers 5-10, however, are human-oriented:
“Honor your parents.
Don’t murder, commit adultery, or steal.
Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
Don’t let jealousy ruin relationships.”
These are all about treating other people right, and God commands them because God cares about us and the way we treat each other. Again and again the Bible teaches us that God deeply identifies with each and every person and cares about us. Sharing God’s values of righteousness and love can bring us closer, deepening our relationship with the Divine.
Third, there is the desire, among friends, for the happiness and success of the other. Even if the other’s pursuit is not ours, part of the relationship is hoping that the other’s pursuit is successful or satisfying. In the case of God, this principle of love invites us to participate with God in tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world. One of our traditional prayers (Shochen Ad from the morning service for Shabbat), speaks of this reciprocity in our relationship with the Divine. It begins with a statement and verse from Psalms 33: “You dwell in the heavens; holy is Your Name. It is written, ‘The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.’ (Psalm 33.1) At this point, the ancient liturgist reads the Psalmist’s “it is fitting for the upright to praise God” as a description of the types of human behavior a relationships with God requires: “By the mouths of the upright are You acclaimed. By the words of the righteous are You praised. By the tongues of the faithful are You exalted. In the midst of the holy are You made Holy.” In other words, God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s people. It is nice to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience, but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways. Praising God is fine, but praise from the righteous is what really counts. Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.
Loving God is certainly an emotion, but it is much more. It is making time in our lives for an awareness of the Divine—a lifestyle of God-consciousness. It is learning God’s values and priorities and sharing them—making them our own values. And, it is joining in the work that God invites us to share, bringing the blessings of heaven to all the earth, manifesting God’s holiness and love with our eyes and our hearts and our hands.