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Learning to Listen, and Love

This week we read the second portion in the book of Deuteronomy, the remarkable sedrah of Va’etchanan. Va’etchanan includes truly spectacular texts: the Shema, the central statement of God’s oneness in the world, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, followed immediately by the Ve’ahavta, the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, minds and strength.

As if that were not enough honor for one Torah portion, Va’etchanan also includes the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the Aseret Hadibrot, for the second time in the Torah. If you were to rank Torah portions you could easily put Va’etchanan near the top in quality of content. It is no accident that this powerfully affirming portion is read the week after Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation, for we take comfort in our knowledge that morality and holiness will ultimately bring justice.

The Shema itself is really a simple sentence. Listen, Israel: God is your Lord, and God is only one. A straightforward statement, and one that should be easy to both understand and accept. Wholeness. Oneness. So simple, in fact, that anyone can understand and embrace it. Although, of course, simple and true ideas often struggle for acceptance.

But it is the text that follows the Shema, the Ve’ahavta, that is the more subtle and in many ways more intriguing passage. For in that prayer we are commanded to love God.

Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha—love the Lord your God with all your mind, soul, and heart. Many things in life can be commanded—but love is distinctly not one of them. So what does the Torah mean when it says we are commanded to love God?

Love is essentially an unconditional way of giving, of focusing attention and caring on another being. Loving God means paying attention to God, to God’s existence in our world, to God’s oneness, to God’s moral code for us. In Judaism, we express our love of God, our ahavah, by demonstrating that we have learned how to listen, shma. If we truly listen then we will know that we must act ethically.

Loving God means being obligated to listen to and follow God’s mitzvot, live ethical lives, and do so with energy and commitment. It also means that being good, morally good, is a form of love. Perhaps the purest form of love.

This week, may we all find a way to express that love through the righteous actions of mitzvot, and so affirm God in our world.

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