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Isha Bekia

Vayishlach – What does it mean to love G-d?

Dec 4, 2020 | Weekly Parsha


What does love really mean? It’s a powerful emotion that connects us to the people around us and to G-d, but how do we understand it? Is there a way to analyse it and look at its different dimensions?

I came across a very interesting discussion in the Midrash Sifrei1 on the concept of loving G-d, which connects with this week’s parsha. It deals with the verse: “And you shall love G-d your L-rd with all your heart, with all your soul and with all me’odecha2 – which is often translated as “with all your strength”.

The Midrash links these three expressions to our founding fathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “With all your heart” refers to Abraham, who was devoted to G-d with all his heart and was beloved to Him. “With all your soul” is linked to Isaac, who was prepared to offer up his soul to G-d when he was called on to do so at the Akeidah. “With all me’odecha” refers to Jacob. The Midrash interprets me’odecha as coming from the word modeh – to acknowledge, to give thanks – because Jacob gave thanks to G-d. It quotes a verse from this week’s parsha in which Jacob says: “I have become small from all of the kindness and truth that You have done for Your servant”.3

This verse comes as Jacob prepares for his encounter with Esau. He is reflecting on where he has come from and his deep gratitude to G-d. He goes on to say: “Because I crossed this Jordan river with my staff” – that’s all I had – “and now I have become two camps.”4 He is referring to the complete transformation of his life: when he left home, he was alone, and now he returns with a large family and the tremendous strength, achievements and property that he has amassed over the years.

What is interesting is his expression: “I have become small.” Rashi says that Jacob felt, in a sense, that because G-d had been so kind to him, it had used up his merits and he didn’t know whether he had ‘run out’ of the Divine goodwill that he needed for protection in his encounter with Esau.5

The Ramban6 gives another interpretation. Jacob was saying: “I feel too small from all of this kindness and truth,” meaning, I don’t deserve it. Kindness refers to all of G-d’s gracious blessings and truth refers to the promises that G-d made to look after him. Jacob expresses deep gratitude to G-d, to the point where he feels undeserving.

The Maharal quotes this Midrash in the section of his work where he deals with the mitzvah of loving G-d.7 He says that these three expressions represent three aspects of love. There is the total emotional devotion represented by Abraham. There is the complete dedication, loyalty and self-sacrifice represented by Isaac, who was prepared to give up his life at the test of the Akeidah. And there is the deep sense of gratitude represented by Jacob. These different dimensions are laid out in the context of our relationship with G-d, but we can apply them to any relationship.

The Gemara discusses another dimension of love. It quotes the verse: “And you shall love G-d your L-rd,” and asks: “What does it mean, to love G-d?” And it answers: “That the name of G-d should become beloved through you.”8 If you really love somebody, you will want other people to love them too. Therefore, part of loving G-d means that we want to spread the love of G-d in the world.

In fact, the Rambam, in Sefer HaMitzvot, where he categorises and defines all of the 613 commandments, explains, under the mitzvah of loving G-d, that a dimension of loving anyone is wanting others to love them as well.9 He says that Abraham was a master at this. He brought many people to the love of G-d, as we learnt in parshat Lech Lecha, where it refers to “the souls that they accumulated”,10 meaning the people that Abraham and Sarah brought to devotion and admiration for G-d.11 The Rambam also writes about how Abraham went out into a pagan world in order to preach the truth and brought tens of thousands of people closer to the belief in one G-d and commitment to righteous and ethical behaviour.12

Now comes the big question. Love is an emotion. What is going to cause people to be drawn with affection and admiration towards G-d? The Gemara gives a fascinating answer.13 It says that people judge G-d and His Torah in accordance with the conduct, personality and character of a person who is seen as representing Torah values. The Talmud says that if such a person “deals with honesty and integrity with people and they speak gently and kindly with people”, what do others say? “Fortunate are the parents who have taught their child Torah, fortunate is the teacher who has taught such a person, and woe to people who don’t have Torah in their lives. Look how magnificent this person’s ways are; see how their deeds are so refined and so elevated.” The Talmud says that this kind of person is described in Isaiah, where the prophet says in the name of G-d: “You are my servant Israel; in you I will take pride.”14 In other words, such a person brings pride and glory to G-d.

The Talmud goes on to say that if, on the other hand, you have a person who is identified with Torah values, yet they do not deal with others with integrity or fail to speak gently and kindly to them, people are naturally distanced from Torah.

It all seems to come down to this: if you want to spread the love of G-d in the world, the way to do it is not only by what you say, but by who you are as a person, because ultimately, the purpose of the Torah is to refine us. We need to be inspiring role models of what the Torah can produce in a human being.

This is how our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spread the love of G-d. They were people of unquestionable integrity and ethics, character, love and compassion. Abraham and Sarah were famous for the openness of their home.15 The kindness with which they welcomed wayfarers and the way that they reached out to every human being with dignity and with kindness were legendary, so that won over the hearts and minds of people.

Isaac, as mentioned before, showed total dedication, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

And Jacob, whom we read about in this parsha, was a paragon of integrity.16 His interactions with Lavan were so difficult because Lavan was unscrupulous, yet Jacob looked after Lavan’s flocks with such devotion and ethical commitment to doing his job, in the cold and in the heat, through the night,17 that the Talmud derives laws of business ethics from his conduct.18

Of course, Jacob also had the trait of kindness and Abraham also had integrity and Isaac possessed both of those, but these are the aspects that are specifically highlighted in the Torah.

The mitzvah of loving G-d is one of the 613 commandments,19 but it is, in a real sense, one that is foundational to the entire system. The system is predicated on our relationship with G-d, and not only with G-d, but with the world around us. The love of G-d touches on both. When we realise that we are His ambassadors, we carry ourselves in a different way. We see ourselves as fulfilling a mission and we realise that with every interaction with every human being, we have an opportunity to spread the love of G-d in the world.

[1] Midrash, Sifrei Deuteronomy, Va’etchanan, 32

[2] Deuteronomy 6:5

[3] Genesis 32:11

[4] ibid.

[5] Rashi, Genesis 32:11, based on Talmud, Shabbat 32a and Talmud, Taanit 20b

[6] Ramban, Genesis 32:11

[7] Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Hashem, Chapter 1

[8] Talmud, Yoma 86a

[9] Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 3

[10] Genesis 12:5

[11] Rashi, Genesis 12:5, based on Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 39:14

[12] Rambam, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3

[13] Talmud, Yoma 86a, with Hagahot HaBach

[14] Isaiah 49:3

[15] Michah 7:20, for examples see Genesis 18:1-8, 21:33 and Talmud, Sota 10a

[16] Michah 7:20

[17] See Genesis 31:39-41

[18] Talmud, Bava Metzia 93b

[19]  Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 3, based on Deuteronomy 6:5