Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vaetchanan

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains one of our most well-known prayers, the Shema and V’Ahavta.  “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

We recite this prayer every time we gather as a community, but have we ever paused to think about its meaning and ponder its words.  What does it mean to love God?  Moreover, how does one love God?  Love can be challenging and difficult.  This is why there are so many songs and poems about love, especially about losing love. The ancient rabbis recognized this difficulty.   So let’s turn to some of our tradition’s commentaries and look to the wisdom of our predecessors.

The Sefat Emet, a great Hasidic master, teaches that everyone wants to love God, but distractions and obstacles always get in the way.  By performing mitzvot, he taught, we remove these obstacles and distractions and let our souls fulfill their natural inclination of loving God.

The Midrash, on the other hand, notices that there are only three mitzvot that command love.  We are commanded to love the neighbor.  We are commanded to love the stranger.  These commandments are given in the Book of Leviticus.  We are commanded to love God later, in the Book of Deuteronomy.  The Midrash comments: this teaches that we learn to love God by practicing love of God’s creatures, by loving our fellow human beings.

In these commentaries we find opposing views.  The Sefat Emet suggests that love of God is natural, but life unfortunately gets in the way.  Get rid of the clutter and we will naturally love God.  The Midrash suggests that we must first love life and only then can we love God.  By loving human beings we will learn to love God.

Which commentary do you prefer?   Do you side with the Midrash or Sefat Emet?   Would you write another commentary?  How else might we learn to love God?

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