Parsha Mitzvot-Vaetchanan-Mitzvah 417-Concept 4-Loving God
“You shall love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.” There are numerous other mentions of the commandment to love God throughout the bible. It is a theme that is touched upon by all the prophets:
“When you observe this entire commandment to perform it, which I command you today, to love God, your Lord, and to walk in His ways all the years, then you shall add three more cities to these three.”
The fact that there are so many reminders throughout the Bible of this commandment implies that it is a fundamental Mitzvah that demands more attention than other commandments. It goes to the heart of our service of God. We will examine its importance to and role in the observance of the other commandments.
Place of Love Among the Other Commandments:
“All the Torah is included in the commandment to love God, because he who loves the King devotes all his thoughts to doing that which is good and right in his eyes.” Love of God will change the way we observe all the other commandments. We will not experience the laws as obligations but as expressions of our love for Him.
It is more important to spend time studying love of God than other Mitzvot. The verse says; “And now, Israel, what is God, your Lord, asking of you other than to fear God, your Lord, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve God, your Lord wholeheartedly and with your whole being; to guard God’s commandments and His statutes that I am commanding you today; for your benefit.” Moses clearly places the love of God before the guarding of God’s commandments and statutes. Love must come first.
Laws of Love:
When we study the laws of love of God we must understand the level of love that is demanded of us and even more so how we are to achieve that degree of love. We will introduce the laws of love with Rashi who describes the intensity of love that is ultimately expected. We will also explain how “knowing” God can help us achieve love of God. We will then review sources that teach us how to achieve love through study, and other sources that illustrate how we can develop love through reflection on the good that God has done and continues to do for us. We will find that striving to develop love is actually the first step in the fulfillment of the commandment. We will then return to the actual laws of love; the levels of love expected and its applications.
The basic introduction to the laws of love can be found in Rashi’s commentary on the Shema which is based upon the Talmud and Midrash: “And you shall love,” you are to obey His words because of your love for Him. There is no comparison between one who obeys out of love and one who obeys out of fear. He who serves his master out of fear, should the master over burden him he will leave him and go away. “With all your heart,” with your two inclinations, your heart should not be fragmented with God. “With all your soul,” means that you must love Him even if He were to take your soul. “And with all your possessions,” means with all your wealth. There are people whose wealth is dearer to them than their bodies, it is therefore said, “with all your possessions.” Another interpretation is to read the Hebrew word מאדך as, “with all your measures, meaning, with whatever measure He apportions you. Whether it is a measure of goodness or a measure of suffering, you must love Him.
Rashi is teaching us the level of love that is demanded of us. However, we must first discover the steps necessary to achieve love which are addressed by Maimonides and other Rishonim:
Nurturing Love Through Study:
One loves the Holy One only with the mind, thus knowing Him; for love is in accordance with knowledge, whether little or much.” “Therefore must a man set aside time to understand and comprehend the various branches of wisdom and learning that impart to him knowledge of his Creator, depending on man’s capacity to understand and apprehend.
It is well known that the love for the Holy One does not become bound up with the heart of man until he thinks about it constantly and properly and abandons everything in the world except for it; as we were commanded, “with all your heart and with all your soul.” One loves the Holy One only with the mind, thus knowing Him; for love is in accordance with knowledge; if little knowledge then little love, if much knowledge then much love. Therefore must a person dedicate himself to understand and comprehend the branches of wisdom and learning that inform him about his creator according to his capacity to understand and attain.
Maimonides is clear that love begins as an intellectual process of discovering God through the study of “various branches of wisdom and learning,” that teach us about the Creator. What are the branches of wisdom and learning to which Maimonides refers?
What is the way to attain the love and fear of God? When a man contemplates His great and wondrous deeds and creations,, and sees in them His unequaled and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and exalts Him and is overcome by a great desire to know the great Name; as David said, “My soul thirsts for the Lord, the living Lord.” …As the Sages said concerning love, “as a result of this you will come to know Him by whose word the world came into being,” It is clear that Maimonides includes the study of nature as part of the process of achieving love. In fact, he dedicates two chapters of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah to describing nature in order to help us achieve love.
This would explain why the Talmud says; “One who knows how to calculate the cycles and planetary courses but does not do so, of him Scripture says, “but they regard not the work of the Lord, nor have they considered the work of His hands.”
This is why Maimonides says : This is the text of the Sifre; It is said, “You shall love,” but from this I do not know how one loves Him; therefore it is said, “And these words…” as a result of this you will come to know Him by whose word the world came into being.” We have already explained in the Mishnah Torah that this love becomes valid only through the apprehension of the whole of being as it is and through the consideration of His wisdom as manifested in it.
Maimonides writes that there is a difference between practical laws and theological propositions: The former lead to fear. The latter lead to love; “As for the opinions the Torah teaches us-namely, the apprehension of His being and His unity, May He be exalted-these opinions teach us love, as we have explained several times. You know to what extent the Torah lays stress upon love…For these two ends, namely, love and fear, are achieved through two things; love through opinions taught by the Torah; which include apprehension of His being as He is in truth; while fear is achieved by means of all actions prescribed by the Torah. We can come to love God through the study of His commandments. The commandments are actually concepts to help us understand God and how we are to relate to His creation. The commandments are keys to “knowing” God so that we may come to love Him.
Maimonides understands that through the “apprehension of His whole of being,” we will come to love Him. The whole of His being includes His Torah, His commandments and His creation. It is important to realize that Maimonides holds that by studying these things in order to love is the fulfillment of the commandment to love even before we actually love Him. If we study Torah in order to understand more about God so that we may come to love Him, we are fulfilling the Mitzvah to love God. The same is true of the study of nature; if we learn about nature in order to learn more about God so that we may love Him, we are fulfilling our obligation to love, even if we have not yet reached the levels of love described by Rashi earlier.
Knowledge and Love:
Maimonides is assuming that the more we know about God the more we will love Him. This assumption is actually based on human behavior. Imagine a father describing his son to a friend; “I love my son because he is respectful, sensitive and caring.” We cannot imagine a father saying, “I love my son because he is disrespectful, insensitive and callous.” The first scenario makes sense because the father is expressing his love based on the positive characteristics of his son. The son shares values that are important to the father. One person may love another despite his faults, but he will not love the other because of his shortcomings. We naturally identify love with finding the good in the person we love.
Maimonides is saying that we will see increasing good qualities of God as we study His Torah, Mitzvot and creation. We will discover more things about Him that we can love. The more we study about God, the more we will come to love Him.
Nurturing Love By Focusing on His Love For Us:
Other authorities feel that studying the good about God may lead to love; however, it must be more personal in order to become part of a person’s heart. They add another approach to nurturing love of God; Love the One Who has done so much good for you. There are three types of love; love of good coming from logic…
If we begin with the things that God did for us in the Torah we will begin to appreciate the good that He has done for us: He took us out of Egypt. This is the first of the Ten Statements because He wanted us to remember the good that He had done for us so that we would begin to love Him. Even the Ten Statements begin with a hint of the need to love God before we can learn the rest of the commandments.
The Midrash teaches us that there were fifty miracles at the splitting of the Red Sea most of which were concerned with taking care of the most basic needs of each individual Jew. As we were experiencing one of the greatest miracles in history God was reminding each individual of His love for each Jew.
When we were in the desert and hungry, God fed us Manna. The Manna fell each day according to the needs of each individual, another constant reminder of God’s love for each Jew.
When we were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. Each time we went to collect water from the “magical” stream, we were reminded of God’s love and concern.
God provided private booths for each family. We had homes even as we were traveling through the desert. He provided Clouds of Protection for the entire nation so that we would all feel His constant protection.
Each of the miracles in the desert served as a constant reminder of God’s love for us and His concern for each individual. When we study these stories in the Torah we should reflect on God’s kindnesses so that we may come to love Him. We should also reflect on His constant expressions of love; it is easier to love someone who loves you. This is why we always recite a beracha describing His love for us before we say the Shema, that we must love Him. We remind constantly remind ourselves that He has shown and continues to show His deep love for us so that we will more easily come to love Him.
The Gift of Torah:
Beyond the mundane gifts that God has provided us we must also reflect on the gift of the Torah in order to further nurture our love for Him. The Torah is the greatest expression of His love for us; God is constantly teaching us; the blessing we say every morning is; “The One Who Teaches Torah to His nation Israel.” Every time we open a Torah book to study it is as if God Himself is teaching us. Learning Torah is intimacy with God. He is providing us with constant opportunities to be close to Him. God is continuously revealing His will and secrets to us.
At the moment that a Jew is studying Torah on this world, God studies the same part of Torah in heaven. Our study of Torah actually allows us a moment of connection with God. Jewish tradition teaches that there is an individual part of Torah for each Jew. We each have a part of Torah that no one else, before or after, had or can have.
The Torah is actually much more than what God teaches us; it is a partnership with God. The Torah includes the Oral Law, which is our application of God’s will to new situations and questions. Torah “is not in the heavens,” it has been placed in our hands. God does not declare how we should deal with the new challenges of modern society. Even if He did, through a prophet, we would not be obligated to obey. God has handed the reigns of Torah to Israel. We must decide how to apply the Written Law to new situations. This partnership with God is the deepest expression of His love for us. When we reflect on the gift of Torah, its expression of God’s deep love and faith in us, its opportunities for intimacy and its partnership with God we will nurture a deep love for God in return. In fact, every time we study Torah with this awareness we are actually fulfilling the commandment to love God.
This is what the Ramchal meant when he wrote; “And in thinking upon His great loving-kindness to us, upon the strength of the Blessed One’s love for man, upon the nearness of the just to Him, and upon the nobility of Torah and Mitzvot-in thinking upon these and upon similar ideas, he will certainly be fired with a strong love for God and will choose and lust to be united with Him.”
Two Way Relationship:
We have seen so far that we can nurture our love of God by reflecting on all the good tings that He did for us in the past, and that such reflection is a fulfillment of the Mitzvah to love Him. We have also seen that God introduced the Ten Statements by reminding us that He took us out of Egypt in order to initiate the commandments with an expression of His love for us. When we realize how much He loves us it becomes easier to respond with love for Him. We have also demonstrated how the Torah is the deepest expression of His love and how we can fulfill our obligation to love God through the study of Torah. The relationship of Torah is so intense that it is actually a partnership between God and Israel. Our relationship with God is a two way relationship. He created the world and interacts with the world in such a manner that what we do matters to Him. This goes beyond the partnership of Torah.
The Or Hachaim says; “this verse is also designed to encourage the heart of the Jew to love God. This is similar to what we have been taught that of all the praises offered to Him, God chose only the ones offered by Israel. Only after Israel had offered this form of praise did God assume His seat on His throne in the celestial regions. This is alluded to by the words “And You shall love God your Lord,” as long as God is not your Lord He is not prepared to reign as God at all. When a Jew is conscious of this he is bound to develop feelings of love for God.” God responds to the world based on the actions and praises of Israel. This is a demonstration of the deep relationship that exists between us. When we consider how committed God is to this relationship with us being a two way relationship we develop intense feelings of love for our Creator.
We have described in great detail in our discussions of the earlier commandments the power of the gift of Free Choice. God created us in order to be independent. God created us to use the Free Choice and independence in order to have pleasure in this world and the next. All the commandments are tools for self growth and development. They are not ways to avoid reality but ways to deal with all the realities of this world. Ours is not a religion that provides an escape from reality. Judaism stresses development and growth in order to take pleasure in this world without living only for the next life in Paradise.
The understanding of the gift of Free Choice and the tools that God has given us is perhaps the greatest source of love for God.
We have reviewed the steps that are necessary in order to develop love of God. We have demonstrated that the study of Torah, the commandments and nature, in order to know God are all considered important steps in the fulfillment of our obligation to love God. We have also seen how the study of Torah for the sake of relationship is a fulfillment of the Mitzvah. The steps that we take to learn about God in order to love Him are all considered the performance of the commandment. Now we can return to the desired levels of love that are demanded by the Mitzvah that we began with Rashi.
Levels of Love:
Let us review the Rashi with which we began the introduction of the laws of love:
“And you shall love,” you are to obey His words because of your love for Him. There is no comparison between one who obeys out of love and one who obeys out of fear. He who serves his master out of fear, should the master over burden him he will leave him and go away. “With all your heart,” with your two inclinations, your heart should not be fragmented with God. “With all your soul,” means that you must love Him even if He were to take your soul. “And with all your possessions,” means with all your wealth. There are people whose wealth is dearer to them than their bodies, it is therefore said, “with all your possessions.” Another interpretation is to read the Hebrew word מאדך as, “with all your measures, meaning, with whatever measure He apportions you. Whether it is a measure of goodness or a measure of suffering, you must love Him.
Rashi begins by saying that we should obey God’s words because of our love for Him. Rashi’s concern is that if we were to serve out of fear we may leave the master when it turns into a burden. Rashi is using love as a strategy to maintain our commitment to God. The Seforno sees far more to serving with love and says; “Be happy to do what is good in His eyes and understand that there is no greater purpose than this.” The Seforno understands love as the highest form of serving God; it is taking pleasure in observing His commandments.
We find an approach that is consistent with the Seforno in the Talmud’s discussion of two different types of Teshuva; Teshuva from fear and Teshuva from love. The Talmud says that if one does Teshuva from fear, his sins will be considered mistakes. However, if one does Teshuva from love of God, his sins will be transformed into merit. The Talmud is not viewing love as a simple strategy to remain committed. It is saying that love in the service of God actually possess greater power than fear, enough power to transform sins into merit.
Rashi continues; “With all your heart,” with your two inclinations, your heart should not be fragmented with God. We all possess two inclinations; one for good and one for evil. We can understand what Rashi means when he says to love God with our Good Inclination; obviously our Good Inclination will motivate us to serve God at the highest level, that of love. But what does Rashi mean when he says that we should love God even with our Evil Inclination? Isn’t the job of the Evil Inclination to make us distant from God? How could we possibly use it to love God?
One explanation that I have heard is that when Rashi says to love God with both our inclinations he means that we should love God more than anything else that we love with either of our inclinations, both good and evil. We should love God more than anything we love with our Good Inclination, and we should love God more than any of the prohibited things we love with our Evil Inclination.
However, most commentaries take Rashi literally; meaning that we should actually love God with our Evil Inclination. Some take it to mean that we should not allow any of the desires of our Evil Inclination to interfere with our love of God. Others say that it means even when we are sinning or angry we should not forget our love of God. It could also mean that there are times we must break the laws of the torah in order to do something positive for God.
Perhaps we can say that this is another example of using our mundane experiences to teach us about our relationship with God. If a man passionately desires a woman who is prohibited to him his Evil Inclination has taught him how powerful lust can be. He can use that experience of lust in his relationship with God; he should lust for God as much as he lusts for that woman. If he would love to eat something that is prohibited to him, he should have equal love to have a relationship with God. He can use the experiences of his Evil Inclination to teach him how to love God with passion.
Rashi said that, “his heart should not be fragmented.” It is difficult and rare to love someone else with all our being, without some part of us being held back. Rashi is telling us that the commandment to love God requires that we aspire to loving God to the point that we love Him with all our being, without holding anything back. Rashi is teaching us to what we must aspire. The Torah does not assume that because we are commanded to love God that we can simply love Him with all our being. The Torah knows that it will take a lifetime in order to reach that level of love. However, we must not forget to aspire to love God with that level of intensity.
This also means that when we fulfill a Mitzvah we must involve our entire being in the Mitzvah. We must understand and appreciate the Mitzvah as it is and as the fulfillment of the will of God and approach the action without distraction. We must have two levels of awareness when we perform a Mitzvah; one the awareness of the Mitzvah itself and its importance and spiritual power. Two, that we are enjoying doing the will of God. When a Mitzvah is performed as habit it is lacking in both levels of awareness. Our actions do not reflect our thoughts. This is called a fragmented heart and does not reflect true love of God.
Rashi continues and says; “With all your soul,” means that you must love Him even if He were to take your soul. Rabbeinu Bachya explains; what is Love of God? It includes loving God even when you are suffering. This is the soul connecting to its source and separating from all things that would interfere. If we love God even when we are suffering we have achieved loving God with all our souls.
The Ramchal says; one of the conditions associated with this commandment is that, when reciting the Shema, each individual should resolve to be ready to give his life for the sake of God’s Unity, and willingly undergo all types of torture and the cruelest of deaths for the sanctification of His name. Such resolve is counted as an actual deed, and one therefore receives the merit of actually giving his life for the sanctification of God’s Name. When a person actually gives his life for God, it results in a very great illumination. This in turn has a tremendous effect in rectifying all creation and increasing its sanctity and enlightenment. When one resolves to give his life for God, this has a very similar effect, although it is not as powerful. With regard to what must be renewed and transmitted each day, however, such resolve alone is sufficient. We accomplish this when we recite the Shema. When one does this, it causes sanctity and enlightenment to be transmitted to all creation, raising it by some degree from the worldly darkness that exists in its fundamental level.
The resolve to give up our lives for God is counted as an actual deed and has powerful spiritual effects on all of creation.
Perhaps the most famous martyr was Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud relates that when the Romans condemned him to death, skinning him alive with metal combs, it was at the time of day that one was required to recite the Shema. As Rabbi Akiva was doing so, his students asked, “must one indeed go so far in suffering martyrdom for the sake of God?’ “Indeed so,” the master replied, “for all my life I waited for this opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of martyrdom; shall I then refrain from so doing now that the opportunity is at hand?” He then recited the Shema, elongating the word Echad and then expired.
The Maharal comments; how did he fulfill the commandment to love God with all his heart and all his soul by lengthening his recitation of Echad until he died? The answer is this: Man’s love for God that issues from man himself is of no account, for man comes from God and to Him he returns. All returns to God, and nothing truly exists other than God, for He is One and naught else exists….When Rabbi Akiva said, “God is One,” implying that nothing else truly exists, and thus all that is ultimately returns to Him…his soul returned completely to God in that He is One.”….Complete love for God is that love in which man returns his spirit and his soul to Him completely to the point that man no longer possesses existence, for he is then in total communion with Him…For this is complete love; when he offers up his soul to God, for then he is in utter attachment with Him. This is the essence of love. This is true love.
What is the proper kind of love? When one loves God with very powerful, great and overflowing love such that his soul is bound up in the love of God, and he finds himself constantly thinking about it as if he were love-sick for a woman such that his mind is never distracted from loving and thinking about her constantly, whether sitting or standing, whether eating or drinking.
- The one who serves for reward.
- One who serves God because it is truth.
- Greater than all my loves, Extravagant, and Powerful.
- Minimum should be for the pleasure of serving the Almighty.
- There is a natural part of our soul that is waiting to serve God with love.
- Leave all for Hashem; always find the Mitzvah in what you are doing.
The first level is that of common people or people who are just beginning to learn to love God. This is the level of someone who serves God in order to receive all the blessings that are written in the Torah and in order to merit life in the World to Come. The observance of Torah and Mitzvot for these reasons can be considered service of self rather than service of God. He is seeking his own good and not the fulfillment of God’s will.
The second level is one who “does what is true because it is true,” and ultimately good will come of it. It is the level of our Patriarch Abraham, whom God described as, “he who loved Me,” for his service was motivated only by love. This is the manner in which a person must approach the totality of Torah and Mitzvot.
The third level is that “a person should love God with a great, extravagant, and powerful love until his soul is bound up in the love of God.” Maimonides was very careful with his words. If he used three adjectives to describe this level of love, he meant that there are three distinct types of love in this level. We have already described “great” as greater than any other love. This describes a love that is greater than the love of a husband for his wife, a parent for a child or a child for a parent. The love of God must be greater than all of those loves.
When Maimonides says “extravagant,” he means that the love should be so powerful that it is expressed in extravagant ways. The love must fill him with so much joy that he feels like getting up and dancing. The love must be thrilling and exciting. The love must be so potent that it is almost impossible to be fully expressed. As it says; “King David was leaping and whirling before God.”
The fourth level is a description of the minimum level of love we must have when observing the Mitzvot; we should keep the Mitzvot for the pleasure of doing God’s will. We derive pleasure from doing something for our parents or someone we love. We would derive pleasure from the opportunity to do something for a great or famous person. We certainly should derive pleasure from doing something for God.
The fifth level of love is the realization that there is a natural part of our soul which will, when activated, naturally perform the commandments for God’s sake. The Talmud says that if an idol worshipper will give charity so that his son will recover from an illness, he is sinning by virtue of misusing the commandments of God. Why are we not sinning when we observe Mitzvot with the wrong motivation, “so I will become wealthy,” “So that I will be called rabbi”? The Sages taught that, “A person should always occupy himself with Torah even when it is not for God’s sake, for out of this will come service that is intended for God’s sake.” The Sages had to find permission for us to observe the commandments with selfish intentions. They did not just dream up their idea that from such service will develop service with love. The Sages are teaching us that there is a part of our soul which is activated by the observance of Mitzvot even with the wrong intentions. Once that part of our soul is activated we will come to observe the commandments purely out of love for God. However, Maimonides says, we must be aware of the part of our soul that is simply waiting to be activated. That awareness, he teaches, is one of the levels of love of God. It is the realization that there is a part of our soul that just waiting to be activated to serve God with love.
The sixth level is when the person “becomes obsessed with loving God at all times, leaving all things in the world except for this.” Obviously Maimonides is not telling us to drop everything in our lives in order to love God. He is not telling us to abandon our spouses, children, parents, jobs and communities because we are obsessed with love of God. He is telling us to make everything we do part of our love of God; to find the mitzvah in everything. We should love our spouses because God wants us to love our spouses. We should work because God wants us to work. We can transform absolutely everything we do into an expression of our love of God. This, according to Maimonides, is the highest level of loving God.
The love and fear of God are powerful means which draw an individual close to God. They enlighten the physical darkness in man, cause his soul to radiate in all its brightness and thus elevate him step by step until he attains a state of closeness to God.
Love is the thing that binds and attaches man to his Creator, increasing his spiritual strength and enveloping him with an aura of the Divine. The main element of such love is the joy in one’s heart, the flaming of the soul before its Creator, and the devotion of all of one’s powers to sanctify God’s name and fulfill His will.
The Ramchal describes four essential elements in the love of God:
- The attempt to arrive at the intention of God to do what he judges will give God pleasure.
- A desire for and the pursuit of intimacy.
- The reciting of God’s Name, praises or Torah will bring him pleasure.
- He will not leave off serving God for any reason.
One who truly loves the Creator will not endeavor and intend to fulfill his obligations by means of the duty which is acknowledged by all of Israel in general, but will react in very much the same manner as a son who loves his father, who, even if his father gives only a slight indication of desiring something, undertakes to fulfill this desire as completely as he can. And though the father may air his desire only once, and even then incompletely, it is enough for such a son just to understand the inclination of his father’s mind to do for him even what has not been expressly requested. If he can understand by himself what will bring pleasure to his father, he will not wait to be commanded more explicitly or to be told a second time. We notice at all periods and at all times, between all lovers and friends-between a man and his wife, between a father and his son, in fine, between all those who are bound with a love which is truly strong-that the lover will not say, “I have not been commanded further. What I have been told to do explicitly is enough for me.” He will rather attempt, by analyzing the commands, to arrive at the intention of the commander and to do what he judges will give him pleasure. The same holds true for one who strongly loves his Creator; for he, too, is one of the class of lovers. The Mitzvot whose behests are clear and widely known, will serve as an indication to him of the will and desire of the Blessed One. He will not say, “What has been explicitly stated is enough for me,” or “In any event I will discharge my obligations by doing what is incumbent on me.” To the contrary, he will say, “Since I have seen that God’s desire inclines towards this, I will use it as a sign to do as much as I can in relation to it and to extend it into as many areas as I can envisage the Blessed One’s desiring it being extended into.” Such a man may be called, “One who gives pleasure to his Creator.”
Love of God consists in a person’s desiring and actually lusting for the nearness of the Blessed One and pursuing His holiness as one pursues anything which he strongly desires. This love extends so far as to cause the mere mentioning of the Blessed One’s Name, the reciting of His praises and the occupation with the words of His Torah and with the nature of the Blessed One’s Divinity to be a delight and pleasure to one, in the same manner that one who very strongly loves the wife of his youth or his only son finds joy and pleasure in merely speaking of them. As Scripture states, “For when I speak of him I will strongly remember him.” There is no question that one who truly loves his Creator will not leave off serving Him for any reason whatsoever unless he is actually forced to do so, and that he will need no motivation or inducement to serve Him, but his heart will elevate and motivate him thereto unless there is some great barrier in his way.
We will discuss Rabbeinu Bachya’s approach in more detail when we study practical steps that one can take to prepare for love and to actually love and when we deal with the question of how is it possible for a human being to reach such heights of love for God. However, at this point we should mention that he compares the love of God at its most basic level to that of a servant for his master. He explains that the love of a servant is on three levels;
1. He loves his master for the good the master does for him.
2. He loves the fact that the master is forgiving and willing to overlook mistakes,
Love of God in Chassidic Thought:
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi speaks of two different types of love: Hidden Love, “Ahavah tiv’it u-mesuteret” which emerges naturally and spontaneously from the depths of our being. In contrast, Rational Love, “Ahavah Sichlit” arises in response to contemplation.
The mitzvah to love God demands that we remove all obstacles and impediments that interfere with our free and open expression of that love. Each of us is a naturally religious being. But this spiritual gift remains latent, undeveloped and unexpressed, unless we carefully nurture this particular talent.
Hidden Love is like a flame; just as the flame of a candle naturally tends upward, seeking, as it were, to escape from its bondage to the wick and soar heavenward, so too the soul yearns to escape from its enslavement to the body, to return and to be reabsorbed in its primal Source, even though it may in the process lose its identity and its separate existence.
Ahavah Sichlit, rational love is similar to the level of love described by Maimonides. It is the thought that comes from contemplation on the Torah and Mitzvot and their infinite meaning.
Reb Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin speaks of Ahavat Olam, Eternal Love and Ahavah Rabbah, Great Love, which complement each other; they refer to Israel’s love for God and God’s reciprocal love for Israel. This is the love we described above that comes from the partnership in Torah and God’s commitment to respond only to the praises of Israel. This was the love expressed by God in the desert and the reciprocal love that the Jews felt in response. Ahava Zuta, limited love, is unidirectional and refers exclusively to a Jew’s love for God.
The Ba’al Shem Tov says that there were times when he would rush through his prayers because he was consumed by love. His passion was so strong that he needed to move along with his passion. Such prayers, he says, are among the highest level of prayer. As it says; “King David was leaping and whirling before God.”
Love in Halachah:
The Mitzvah of love plays a role in the observance of all the Mitzvot; observance must be with the passion of love and with the pleasure of serving God, Whom we love. This is actually a law: The happiness a person experiences when performing Mitzvot and in loving God Who commanded them, are important elements of serving God. Whoever holds himself aloof from this joy deserves to be punished, as it says, “…because you would not serve God, your Lord with happiness and a glad heart.” On the other hand, whoever humbles himself on such occasions is a great and honorable person who serves God out of love. Indeed, David, King of Israel, declared, “I will behave even more humbly than this and be low in my own esteem,” because the greatest glory and honor is found in rejoicing before God. As it says; “King David was leaping and whirling before God.”
The love of God leads to other obligations and has implications in a number of areas of Jewish law:
When Rabbeinu Bachya explains the basic obligation of love in his commentary to the bible, he says that; “Love is when a person reflects on His Torah and Mitzvot and takes pleasure in them …and brings others closer to God.”
This is consistent with the Halachic Midrash which says; “Another explanation of, “You shall love God, your Lord,” is to cause Him to be beloved by humans, even as your father Abraham did, as it is written, “and the souls that they had gotten in Haran.”
We can see that the love of God leads immediately to another obligation; it must be expressed in our love for other human beings, His creations. This theme is stressed in the Talmud: Abaye cited a baraita: “You shall love God, your Lord,” means that because of you the Name of Heaven will become beloved. This means that when a person studies Scriptures and Mishna, and serves scholars of the Torah, and he speaks softly with other people, and his dealings in the marketplace are proper, and his business in conducted honestly – what do people say about him? “Happy is so and so who studied Torah; Happy is his father who taught him torah; happy is his teacher who taught him Torah; woe to those who have not studied Torah. Have you seen so and so who studied Torah? How refined are his deeds!
Most understand this obligation to love others as a reflection that they are all creation of God. However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi judges love according to its efficacy in leading each of us to refine our character in our interpersonal relationships as we strive thereby to please the Creator. He sees this love of others as a reflection of how much we have used the love of God to refine our character.
The love of God plays a role in other laws: When we insert a special paragraph for the Sabbath into our Grace for Meals, we say; “since this day is great and holy before You, we will rest and repose in love, in accordance with the precept of Your will.” We must mention that we rest “in love;” our rest on the Sabbath must be an expression of love and we must articulate that love in our prayers and blessings.
We have learned that we must love God even when we are suffering. This is played out in the following law: “On hearing good news, one says, “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who is good and does good.” On hearing evil news, on says, “…the True Judge.” A person has to bless God with happiness even for ill fortune, just as he has to bless Him with joy for good fortune, as it is said, “And you shall love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” In the abounding love of God enjoined on us, it is implied that even in distress; one should thank and praise Him with joy.”
Love of God is actually the main determining ingredient in allowing someone to convert to Judaism: “Do not think for a second that Samson, the savior of Israel, or King Solomon, who is called, “the beloved of God,” married non-Jewish women…the proper approach when someone comes to convert is to determine perhaps they are converting for money or power…they must understand the yoke of the Torah and its commandments…if they accept the Torah with love then they can be accepted as converts.”
The laws of the love of God do not only play a role in other commandments, they also branch out into other areas of Service of God.
The Branches of Love:
The Ramchal says that there are three “branches” of love of God; joy, attachment and jealousy. This is based on the following Midrash: Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, employed three terms of love in relation to Israel and we learn them from the episode of Shechem ben Chamor; Communion, longing and desire.
The Torah commands us to choose the way of life and blessing; “that you may love God your Lord and that …you may attach unto Him.” The Talmud comments: Is it possible for a mere human being to attach to God, who is described elsewhere in the Torah as a consuming fire? The Sages reply: what Scripture means is that whoever marries his daughter to a Torah scholar or takes care of a scholar’s business or in any way provides for a scholar’s needs from his own resources, the Torah considers it as if he had attached to the Shechina itself, the very Divine Presence. Thus, according to the Talmud, we can take an indirect route in order to attach to God, that is, we can attach to those who spend their lives studying His Torah.
Joy of love is rejoicing that one has been privileged to serve the Blessed master. We can understand how love motivates us to observe the positive commandments with joy. We saw this in the quote from Maimonides earlier how this joy should be expressed in the fulfillment of all the commandments.
The third branch of love of God is jealousy-being jealous for the Holy One’s Name, hating His enemies and striving to humble them as much as possible so that the service of the Blessed One will be done and His honor magnified.
Is it possible for a human being?
We have described very high and passionate levels of the love of God that is required by the Torah. We have seen how it is expressed in law and how it branches out into other areas of service of God. We must ask if these levels of love, these demands that love be expressed in everything we do is possible for a human being. Is it possible for someone who works all day and comes home exhausted at night, even if he makes time to study and pray, to reach such high levels of spiritual perfection?
This issue has been addressed by many of the great Jewish philosophers. Rabbeinu Bachya says; “Love for God is the acme of all religious life, and all other virtues are prerequisite for and preparatory to it. There are two kinds of love: The lower kind, accessible to most humans, derives from fear. The higher kind, which is independent of fear and of any intended personal benefit, material or spiritual, is reserved for the elite who are prepared to surrender everything, including life itself, for the love of God. Even then, such love is granted to those few individuals only as an act of divine grace.
We must have God’s help in order to achieve the highest levels of love, whether it is as defined by Rashi, the Maharal, Maimonides or the Ramchal. God’s help will come in response to our striving to love God, using the strategies of study of the Torah and Mitzvot, nature, God’s gifts to us and His love for us, to achieve love and to take the first steps towards loving Him.
There are approaches that describe ways for us to reach lower levels of love. For example; the Torah commands us to choose the way of life and blessing; “that you may love God your Lord and that …you may attach unto Him.” In commenting on this biblical verse, the Maharal shifts the focus to the first part of the verse, the command to love God. How may those of us less endowed with religious fervor or metaphysical yearning or spiritual prowess express our love for god? The Maharal answers; by loving His scholars. The Maharal’s interpretation thus enables ordinary people to participate in spirituality, in fulfillment of the halachic requirement to love God. The Maharal is not describing how to reach the highest levels of love. He is simply portraying a way for “ordinary” people to love God on their own level.
Although we know that we need God’s help in order to achieve the highest levels of love, we must begin the process on our own. There are numerous practical strategies offered by Jewish philosophers and Chassidic masters that we can use to take the first steps on our quest to achieve love of God.
Introductory steps of Duties of the Heart:
One cannot come directly on his own to love of God. He must begin with specific introductory steps:
The introductory steps include 2 Focuses, 2 types of humility, 2 calculations and 2 types of awareness:
- The Two Focuses of the Heart: A person must focus only on God (meaning study and contemplation) and focus all his actions on the service of God.
- The Two Steps of Humility; one is humility before God and the other is humility before those who fear God and His chosen ones.
- The Two Calculations; one is what are his obligations to God and the other is self-evaluation of his mistakes and how God has withheld His anger and has hidden the sins or forgiven them.
- The Two Types of Awareness; one is of all that God did for previous generations and the other is the awareness of the wonders of God in this world.
Once a person has practiced these introductory steps he will be able to develop true love of God and reach a point at which God will help him achieve the highest levels of love.
Rabbeinu Bachya describes three ways of focusing on God’s gifts that will nurture more love of God.
- The Anonymous Gift
- The Gift of Increasing Benefit
- The Gift that is Important Because of the Giver
The Anonymous Gift is to imagine someone knocking at your door and showing you a chauffeured limousine that has been given to you by an anonymous friend. You will never have to pay for gas or repairs. However, you cannot know the identity of the giver. You would go crazy trying to figure out who this anonymous friend is. This isn’t just a simple gift; it is incredible. You would never stop trying to learn the identity of the giver.
We, each of us, have received equally incredible gifts from an anonymous friend; eyes, ears, arms, nose, and a brain. We don’t know who the giver really is. Should we not spend all our energy trying to figure out who this anonymous friend is? Such gifts, such as sight, hearing, smelling and thinking, demand our attention. We should devote all our energy to identifying the giver and learning who He is.
The Gift of Increasing Benefit is the idea that there are some gifts that the longer we have them the more we benefit from them. We increasingly appreciate the gift as they become progressively more useful. If someone gives a computer to me and I learn how to use more of its programs as time goes on and I use it for all the time more of my needs, hopefully, my appreciation of the gift will concomitantly develop as well.
God has given us many gifts that become increasingly useful as time goes on; all of our senses and gifts, and, most importantly, our ability to think. Our appreciation of God, and therefore our love, should develop along with our benefit from His gifts.
The Gift that is Important Because of the Giver is the concept that a gift that comes from an important person is more appreciated than other gifts. If someone gave me the pen of Abraham Lincoln, I would appreciate that pen far more than any other pen, simply because it was Lincoln’s. The gifts we have come from the Creator of the Universe. We should appreciate them more by virtue of the giver. Our love of God can be expressed by the appreciation of the basic gifts He has given us in order to live. We can convey our love of God by being grateful for our eyes.
Rabbeinu Bachya believes that focusing on the basic gifts that God has given us, and by appreciating them we increase and articulate our love for Him.
The following are the signs of someone who loves God as described in the Duties of the Heart:
- He abandons any distractions from love of God.
- The fear of God will always be manifested on his face.
- He will not consider the praises or insults of other people as he fulfills the will of God.
- He should be willing to give all his money, his body , his life, his children to the service of God.
- The Name of God should always be on his lips.
- He should say before anything he does or says that it should be the will of God.
- He should direct everything he does to the service of God.
- He should rejoice in fulfilling the will of God.
- He should be careful in choosing his group of friends.
- He should not allow anything to worry him.
- He should rejoice in God.
All of the above can be used as tools to review concepts that we have learned earlier. They are strategies to incorporate many of the ideas we have studied.
- In the blessing before the Shema focus on God’s love for us.
- In the Modim blessing focus on all the good things that God does for you as an individual.
- Use the Three Gifts of the Duties of the Heart when saying, “With all your possessions;” use your possessions to love God.
- In the prayer of Uva L’Tziyon there is a paragraph in which we thank God for our portion as Jews; “Baruch Elokeinu” use this as an opportunity to express gratitude and love for God.
- Stop before fulfilling a Mitzvah and say, “I am doing this because I love my Creator.”
- Read nature books that describe the spectacular creation in order to appreciate God’s power.
- Ask God for help in achieving the highest levels of love.
- When praying; thank God for the opportunity to pray.
- Stop before eating and reciting a blessing and appreciate the beauty of the food you are about to eat, and the opportunity to make the food holy through your blessing.
A Sampler of Verses of Love
It helps to use verses from the bible that speak of love for God to nurture our own love of God. The following is a sample of such verses.
Fear and Love:
Abraham is usually presented as the archetype of God-lover rather than God-fearer; see Isaiah 41:8 and 2 Chronicles 20:7: The major part of fear derives from love, for one who loves another strives to fulfill his wishes in every possible way, so that the love will be indivisible. He therefore fears to violate his beloved’s will even in small matters, for that would negate his love. That is why it is said of Abraham, “for now I know that you are a God fearing man.”
The Maharal considers this type of fear, which derives from love, superior to that which is independent of love.
The extensive debates whether love or awe is the highest level of serving God.
The Way of God 1:4:7: “In doing so, he conforms to God’s will in two interrelated ways. First of all. He obeys God’s will in doing what he was commanded to do. Secondly, however, he also perfects himself to that certain degree associated with that particular commandment. In doing so, he is conforming to God’s will all the more, since God desires that man be perfected and attain the enjoyment of His good.”
Sifre; Va’etchanan 6:5 states that a person who serves God out of love receives a greater reward than one whose service is motivated by fear. Nevertheless, the awareness of this ultimate reward should not influence the person’s motivation.
Most of the structure of the outline from this point on is based on seven questions that R’ Bachya uses; 1.What is love of God? 2. How is the love of God expressed? 3. How does one come to love God? 4. Is a human being capable of such love? 5. What are the things that weaken love? 6. What are the signs of love of God? 7. What are the practices of one who loves God?