How to Love

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

One of the most famous passages in Jewish literature comes from this week’s Parshah, Va’Etchanan: the Shema.

Although we recite the Shema at least twice a day in our prayers, and it prominently appears in virtually every Jewish prayerbook, it is not actually a prayer. Rather, the Shema is an exhortation of the Jewish people by Moses to never lose sight of the fact that our G-d is one — even though the spiritual, physical and philosophical variety of the universe may appear otherwise — and that we are commanded to love Him with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our might and means.

In Moses’s own words: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is 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 means.” [1]

It is this commandment — “you shall love G-d” — that is somewhat perplexing, and which is the subject of this week’s column.

How can love be the subject of a commandment? Can you compel someone to love another? How would such a commandment be enforced? Could a person be punished for failing to love?

Different commentaries explain this commandment in various ways. Some, such as Rashi, suggest that the commandment is not strictly to love G-d, but is rather a reiteration of the obligation to perform all of G-d’s commandments and Mitzvot — but to endeavor to do so out of love, as love enhances the performance of the Mitzvot. [2] But that still doesn’t really explain how feelings of love can be the subject of a commandment. Moreover, loving G-d is enumerated amongst the 613 commandments [3] — so the question really requires a more meaningful answer.

The answer, however, gives us a much deeper insight into the true nature of love itself.

Several great Jewish thinkers, including Maimonides [4] and R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi [5], explain that love can be the product of deliberate creation — by meditating and focusing on those ideas and things that inspire love.

In the case of G-d, Maimonides writes that “at the time that man comprehends His actions and His creations that are wondrous and great, and he sees from them His wisdom that has no measure or end, immediately he loves and praises and glorifies and desires a great desire to know the great G-d. As David wrote, ‘My soul thirsts for G-d, the living G-d.’

This same concept is also used to explain Ender Wiggin’s tortured psyche in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game (now a major motion picture):

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them….I destroy them.

To know someone is to love that person. It is no coincidence that the very first act of lovemaking recorded in the Torah, between Adam and Eve, is described as knowledge: “And the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived…” [6]

Of course, knowing someone means to truly know him or her — not our own narcissistic version of the person that we imagine in our own heads. Not a knowledge that never extends beyond our own bubble. To know someone means to leave ourselves, and to get into the other’s head, the other’s heart, and — in the sense of true lovemaking — the other’s body. It means to get to know the other person in the full context of that person’s life, background, experiences, and idiosyncrasies. Once we know a person in this way, we cannot help but love him or her.

We have an easier time loving ourselves; hence the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is based upon a similar principle: just as you love yourself, seeing yourself in the full context of everything that makes you tick, so too must you see and (therefore) love your neighbor.

True love is not a naturally-occurring phenomenon. Lust is, inasmuch as it is based upon sheer chemistry — but can it compare to the deep and profound love of truly knowing someone? As Tevye’s wife, Golde, in Fiddler On the Roof, finally answered Tevye’s question “do you love me?”:

For 25 years I’ve lived with him

Fought with him, starved with him

25 years my bed is his

If that’s not love, what is?

Love is what follows after genuinely reaching outside of ourselves to truly know another.

And the same is true with loving G-d. Loving our Creator is not so simple as finding a feeling of warmth toward Him. It is not even so simple as connecting with the most spiritual part of ourselves and calling that love of G-d. That is self-love. Perhaps it is self-love in its most lofty sense, without the ugliness that we most often associate with narcissism; but because it is based upon our own reflection, it is love of ourselves just the same. For how can we love G-d if we do not first try and get to know Him? And getting to know Him doesn’t mean imagining our own image of G-d, the G-d that we would like Him to be; it means really getting to know Him, using the clues that G-d has left us as to discover who He is.

And the love will follow.

Works Cited

[1] Deuteronomy, 6:4-5.

[2] See Deuteronomy, 6:5, Rashi.

[3] See Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandment No. 3.

[4] Mishnah Torah, Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2.

[5] Tanya, Chinuch Kattan.

[6] Genesis, 4:1.