Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
In this week’s portion, Va’et’hanan, Moses continues with his final words to the people of Israel.
He tells the story of receiving the Torah, proclaims the Ten Commandments, and teaches them “Shema Yisrael,” “Hear O Israel,” which is written in tefillin and mezuzot, and has been recited by the people of Israel daily, morning and night, for thousands of years.
In the second verse in the portion, we are commanded to love God: “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart....” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
This verse raises a complicated question: Is it possible to command someone to love someone else? It would be as though we came over to someone and said: “You have to love this specific person.” Can anything control the way we feel? Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 12th century), the great thinker and rabbinical authority, answered this query in two different places with two different responses.
In his Mishne Torah, which was meant to detail all the laws of Jewish observance, he writes: “What is the path to love Him and fear Him? When a man examines His great and wondrous deeds and creations and discerns His inestimable and infinite wisdom – he immediately loves, praises, glorifies and has a great desire to know Him, as David said: ‘My soul is thirsty for You, the living God’” (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2).
Following these words, Maimonides wrote chapters dealing with physics and metaphysics. At the end of those chapters, he wrote that when a man looks at these things and recognizes all creation down to the species, and sees the deep wisdom of the Creator of all creatures, his love for God increases, and his soul is thirsty and his body yearns to love Him, blessed be He (ibid. chap. 4).
In Sefer Hamitzvot, in which Maimonides counts and explains all the commandments in the Torah, he writes about a different path to loving God: The third mitzva is that we are commanded to love God, exalted be He – i.e., to meditate upon and closely examine His commandments and works, in order to understand Him, and through this understanding to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. This is the goal of the commandment to love God (Sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment 3).
Anyone who examines these comments sees that the two paths Maimonides writes about are actually one. The only possibility that can lead us to loving someone is by thinking of and examining his virtues again and again. As regards the Creator, we have two ways of examining and comprehending some of His virtues, as they are interpreted in our own eyes. One way is to look at the great book of wisdom that we were given, the Torah; another way is to examine the Creator’s amazing deeds: heaven and earth, the galaxies and germs, the body and atoms, and so much more.
Once we comprehend that with a bit of effort we can indeed control our emotions, we have an amazing path to making our lives sweeter at many of their varied crossroads.
When we want to love our partner, our neighbor or our colleague, we just have to gently focus ourselves on his or her virtues and the many good things he or she does for us, and we should think about those a few times a day.
When we feel that we are experiencing life with anger and emotional restlessness, we begin to notice the infinite number of good things in our lives and start to think of them over and over again.
In this way, we can live our lives with happiness, serenity, and love – for the Creator of the universe, for the world in which we live, and for every man and woman around us. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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