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Parshat Vaetchanan: Being Commanded to Love

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy,” co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

 Being Commanded to Love*

The entire book of Deuteronomy, when compared to the first four books of the Torah, is found to have a unique character, a personality all its own. Whereas in the other books of the Pentateuch the laws of Judaism are expressed in more or less direct legal form, and where the accompanying narrative is factual in nature, this fifth Book of Moses is noted for its sweeping sentimentality, for its appeal to the heart and to the soul. The words lev (heart) and nefesh (soul) appear more often here than in all the other books combined. We are charged to uplift our hearts and souls, to give of ourselves emotionally, to experience Torah ecstatically, to feel it personally and intimately.

In fact, the one word most characteristic of the book of Deuteronomy is ahava (love). We are to do more than obey God and follow Him. We must also love Him, we must experience His presence with our deepest emotions. We read, “Listen O Israel, the Lord your God is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). And we are later again told to love the Lord our God (11:1), and that He asks of us to love Him (10:12).

But lest anyone here this morning believe that this is merely gaudy sentimentalism, a sort of fatherly advice, let that person be corrected quickly. The Halakha insists that love of God is a mitzva, a commandment. And as such it is a guiding principle of Jewish life. We are commanded to love God.

And yet, this very idea, the idea that we are commanded to love, is a most perplexing notion. Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers were puzzled by it. They ask a simple, but a pointed question: How can you possibly “command” someone to love? Love is an emotion, a deep emotion, and as such is above, independent of, and detached from volition or will. You can command me to do or give or act or walk, and I can obey, but you cannot possibly command me to love or hate and expect me to obey, no matter how much I want to. I either love or I do not love. Many a parent has learned that lesson the hard way! How, therefore, do you account for terming the love of God a mitzva, a commandment?

Perhaps one of the most beautiful answers given to this question is the one offered by the author of Sefat Emet, the renowned Gerrer Rebbe. It is answer which bespeaks ahavat Yisrael, and which gives us a key to understanding the entire book of Deuteronomy. The Gerrer Rebbe maintains that the question itself offers a clue to the answer. Since you cannot command love where it does not already exist, he says, and since the Torah does command such love, then the only logical conclusion is that there is ingrained in every Jewish heart a deep and abiding love for God and for Torah. There exists in every Jewish heart, as he calls it, a nekuda, a “dot” or spark of love for things Jewish. Sometimes that nekuda is too small to be of value, it is covered up with superficial rust, it is hidden by material desires and pursuits – but it’s there. And the commandment to love God is the command to each and every one of us to be conscious of it, to develop that nekuda, to nurture it and express it. But the initial spark, the nekuda, is already there. Every Jew has it, whether he knows it or not. It is just that sometimes we must get rid of the dross and the drapes to be able to see it and appreciate it.

The story is told of the famous sculptor, Michelangelo, who was at work on his great statue of Moses. As he was working, someone who was observing him was moved to remark, “How wonderful to watch a master at work. Here you take a mere slab of stone and make a Moses of it.” But the artist turned to him and said: “You’re mistaken. What happens is that I see Moses inside the stone, and I merely chip away the unnecessary parts of the stone so that you can see clearly what I saw in there before.” So it is with the nekuda of love for Torah – it already exists in every Jewish heart. But we must strive to chip away the hard rock that so frequently encases it. For the love of God, we must do it.

Our modern thinkers have come to adopt the same technique. Educators no longer browbeat a child into learning something for which he has almost no natural aptitude. Instead they look for his possibilities, for his capacities, for his nekuda, and work on that, try to develop it and give it direction and expression. They don’t beat it into the child; they pull it out of him. Psychology, too, under the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis, speaks of a nekuda, of a basic desire in every human being which reaches out in love. They call it the libido. That is the desire for love and affection which exists in every human being. In a child it is expressed as love for parents, then as love for playmates, and finally as love for a life-long mate. Judaism merely goes one step further and maintains that in addition to this libido, with its physical and sexual ramifications, there is also a spiritual libido – the nekuda of ahavat Hashem and ahavat Torah.

With this in mind we need never despair of the future of Torah Judaism either here or in Israel. Prophets of gloom have forecast the demise of Torah Judaism as much as two thousand years ago when the Pharisees were regarded as “done for.” Assimilation was then supposed to win the field. Now we are told that we are all done for, and that “Canaanism,” a primitive form of Near East jingoism that has caught the fancy of some unhappy young sabras, will replace Judaism and Torah altogether. Perhaps from a superficial analysis they are right. But so were the Sadducees right two thousand years ago, from a superficial analysis. The trouble is that they fail to reckon with the nekuda. It’s only a dot, that bit of love for Torah – but oh, can it grow! How often have we seen people seemingly infinitely far from Torah return with a love and emotion that were amazing to behold. Who knows when the nekuda will break out, when the spark will be fanned into great flames of ahavat Hashem and ahavat Torah. The nekuda is unpredictable – but it’s always there.

But, having gone this far and ascertained that in every Jewish heart there exists this nekuda of ahavat Hashem, let us proceed joyfully to the next happy thought. No matter how stern God is with us, no matter how strict and demanding He may seem at different times in history, He – so to speak – always has his nekuda – and that divine nekuda is ahavat Yisrael. God loves Israel, and shall someday prove it even more obviously, even as Israel loves God. For does not the Talmud (Berakhot 6a) relate that just as Jews put on the tefillin that contain verses professing our love for God, so does God, figuratively speaking, put on divine tefillin, in which is written, “Who is like your people Israel, a nation alone in the earth” (I Chronicles 17:21).

Yes, there is a nekuda in God too. And insofar as we develop the nekuda of love for Torah within us, does God develop the nekuda of love for Israel within Him. But whatever may be – the spark is there. And it is that which has insured our survival.

Nowhere can we find this lofty idea more beautifully expressed than in the inspiring words of Isaiah (49:14), with which we begin next week’s haftara: “And Zion said, the Lord has forsaken me, and God has forgotten me.” Israel despairs of ever gaining God’s love – but Zion has forgotten about the nekuda. For it is an eternal “dot,” and it is the nekuda of God’s guardianship over and love for Israel. “No more than a mother can forget her child, the fruit of her womb, can God forget Israel; for even if these be forgotten, I will remember you” (v. 15).

For as long as Israel lives there will burn in every Jewish heart and soul the nekuda of love for God. And for as long as there exists for God the nekuda of love for Israel will Israel live.

And may that be forever.

* August 21, 1954.