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Parashat Va’ethanan 5781

July 22, 2021

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For the Love of God
A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’ethanan
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

It is in Parashat Va’ethanan that the Torah begins speaking about the love of God. Certainly the most famous of these verses follow immediately after the six words of the Shema.

Let’s quote them in full:

Deut. 6: (5)And you shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all you might. (6)These words which I command you today shall be on your heart. (7)You shall impress them upon your children – speaking of them when you are staying at home or when you are moving along your way – when you lie down and when you rise up. (8)Bind them as a sign on your hand as a symbol between your eyes. (9)And write them on the doorposts of your homes and on your gates.

Much has been taught about the mitzvah to love God. What does it actually mean – and how is it that the Torah can command an emotion? The depth and breadth of these commentaries is far beyond the scope of this D’var Torah.

But let us make an observation about these verses that speaks to those questions. What is the relationship between the first verse (5) and the next verses? We are called upon to love God with the fullness of our minds, hearts and lives. It would be reasonable to assume that as a consequence of that love, we should teach Torah (symbolic of God) to our children, making it a regular part of our conversation. In our love, we should bind Torah on our arms and heads and we should attach it to our homes. In short, because we love God, we devote ourselves to God’s Torah. Yet there is another way to understand these verses. (Rashi hints at it in his commentary on verse 6.) Verse 5 calls upon us to love God completely. The Torah then presumes the question which we all ask, “But how could that happen?”  Verses 6-9 then come not as a consequence of love but as instruction for attaining the love.

Read this way, the first step to the love of God is to place the Torah “on” our hearts. Strange language. We might have expected “in” our hearts. But we may not be ready for the “in.” Let’s just start with the “on.” Let’s see how it feels. Let’s carry it with us. If it is “on” our hearts, it may find its way “in.”

The next step in the process of attaining love of God is to teach Torah. This could be to our own children or to our students (who are considered our children in Jewish tradition). We all know that the process of teaching is one which translates what we think we know into actually knowing it. Only when you teach something does it become real. It is also the opportunity that we have not only to have an intellectual awareness of something, but to emote an excitement and enthusiasm about it.

And we make God-talk a regular part of our daily conversations, at home and away, morning and evening. Whenever we love something, we want to talk about it (her, him) all the time. But consider the teaching of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in the Mikhtav MeiEliyahu (Part 1, Kuntras HaHesed). Rav Dessler asks us to notice that most people say that they give to someone because they love them. Yet, he continues, the truth is just the opposite. We do not give because we love – we love because we give.

And giving is not just about things. It can well be about words. Perhaps our verse is telling us that we do not speak about God all the time because we love God. Rather, we speak about God because we want to love God.

And then, verses 8 and 9 come to add the action to words. We bind the words of Torah to our body. It is an intimate act. There is no space between us and the symbolic representation of God. That intimacy becomes real as we wrap the straps of the tefillin around our finger and speak words of betrothal.

Again we might return to Rav Dessler’s idea. In our world, we might think that we marry because we love. In truth, Rav Dessler would say, we marry so that we will love each other. True love does not give birth to marriage. Rather, marriage gives birth to true love. Our intimate act of binding ourselves to God is not the consequence of our love – it is the way that we try to fall in love.

So what’s the point. When I was a congregational rabbi, people would sometimes say to me, “Rabbi, I don’t pray because I don’t believe in God.” I learned to reply, “People don’t pray because they believe in God – they believe in God because they pray.”

We who are rabbis and cantors, Jewish educators and dedicated lay leaders – we have to remember that belief in God and surely the love of God are not givens – they are aspirations. The more we carry with us “on” our hearts the things we find difficult to accept, the more likely we are to fall in love. The more we teach and explain and do so with excitement and enthusiasm, the more likely we are to fall in love. The more we allow ourselves to find moments of intimacy – removing any distance between ourselves and God (Torah), the more likely we are to fall in love.

Love is what makes life wonderful. But love is complicated and it takes a lot of work. Often we learn to love by observing the lives of others. We are the others. We are the leaders who so many look to for ways to love God. The Torah gives us a few verses of guidance in our parasha and we repeat these verses twice each day. May we be worthy to understand, to teach and love God with all our selves.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.