Every night before going to bed, my children and I recite the Shema and Ve’ahavta. These powerful prayers are found in this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan. In the Ve’ahavta, we are commanded to love God — one of the 613 commandments. Indeed, it is a cornerstone of our tradition. Out of the 613 commandments, very few command an emotion. And, when they do it is generally toward other people, like loving our neighbor and the stranger. But what does it mean to love God, a force we cannot even see?
The Ve’ahavta prayer explains the three ways that we are supposed to love God: Bechol levavcha, with all of our heart; bechol nafshecha, with all of our soul; and bechol mi’odecha, with all of our might.
Rashi, the famous French medieval commentator, first points out that the act of loving God should be done from a point of love as opposed to fear — for one who serves their master out of fear is much more likely to leave him. Additionally, rabbinic commentators bring a story comparing how two servants showed their love for their king when he went on a year-long voyage. While he was away, the servant who loved him tended a beautiful garden. Upon the king’s return, this servant presented him with filled plates of the fruits of this garden. The king loved this gift and was very grateful to him. The other servant, who feared his king, saw his king’s reaction to this elaborate gift and brought him dried fruit. The king saw this gift for what it was, an afterthought, and rejected the gift. As we see from this story, our actions that come from a place of love are vastly superior to those that come from fear.
As far as this three-pronged approach to love, Rashi explains that loving God with all of our heart refers to a whole love with both our yetzer hatov and our yetzer hara, our good and evil inclinations. Rashi understands the command to love God with all our soul refers to the fact that we should choose our religion over our life. In other words, we should be willing to martyr ourselves for the sake of following our beliefs. And Rashi explains the final prong, with all our might, as refering to the fact that we should be willing to give up our property for the sake of the Jewish people. For those who consider their property more important than their lives, this would be the ultimate sacrifice.
Unlike Rashi who saw this command as one that required action, Maimonides, the great medieval commentator and philosopher, believed that the primary way for us to show our love of God is through the study of Torah. He understood that the only way to truly know God is through intellectual pursuit.
On the other hand, Seforno, the Renaissance Italian commentator, questioned whether loving God could really be considered a commandment. He wonders if one can truly be commanded to feel an emotion.
Yet, it is clear to me that we are not commanded to feel, rather we are required to do. I agree with Rashi that even though belief is important in Judaism, we are a religion of action. And this commandment is no different. Just as the way that we show love for others is through gestures like giving gifts, spending time with or caring for others, in my mind, we must do the same here. Although both protecting our religion and study are important, I believe that the best way to show our love of God is in our daily interactions with God’s creation. We need to be directing our hearts towards the plight of others by doing all we can to support people who are hungry, enslaved or otherwise disadvantaged. We must turn our souls inward and find ways to commune with God and help us gain inner strength to persevere. And, finally, we must fight with all our might for a better tomorrow – conserving our natural resources and ensuring that our children have an inhabitable earth to live on.
Later in the Ve’ahavta it says that we must teach these commandments diligently to our children. In acting in these very important ways, we will be teaching the next generation how to show love for God. Thus this mitzvah will be a catalyst to changing our world for the better and ultimately bringing us closer to redemption.