Love is one of the most powerful of all human emotions. It drives both personal and social change, and can transform the world. It is the active ingredient in our most important relationships – the relationship between husband and wife, between parent and child, between siblings, between friends. And, of course, our relationship with G-d.
But the big question is — can love be cultivated? We usually think of love as a feeling. But what if it’s something less abstract. What if love is not just something we feel but something we do?
The question is especially significant when it comes to love of G-d. In this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, we read of the mitzvah to “love G-d”. The verse states, “And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6, verse 5) The verse also appears in the first paragraph of the Shema, which we recite every morning and evening.
And yet how can we be commanded to love G-d? Isn’t love an emotion – something we either feel or we don’t? Many of our sages over the generations have grappled with just this question. The Rambam has one approach to answering it. He writes, “When a person reflects on His [G-d’s] deeds, and wondrous and great creations, and sees from them His wisdom which is beyond assessment and without end, this will bring him to love and to praise and to glorify and to be filled with a great desire to know His great name. As David said, ‘my soul thirsts for the living G-d’.” (Laws of the Foundation Principles of the Torah, Chapter 2). The Rambam is teaching us that when we contemplate the sheer beauty and brilliance and perfection of the the natural universe, our hearts will be filled with an overwhelming love and wonderment for the One who created it.
As Jews, we take nothing for granted. To attune our consciousness to the wondrous things going on around us, our Sages enacted numerous blessings for us to recite. There are blessings on witnessing lightning, on hearing thunder, on seeing the oceans or an awesome mountain range, on noticing a rainbow with its brilliant colours, or the first blossoms of spring. There are blessings on more “mundane” natural wonders as well – a blessing before eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable, or a slice of bread. Of course, it’s all equally wondrous. Gemara actually compares the seemingly commonplace occurrence of rain to the revival of the dead, which is why both are mentioned together in the same blessing in the Amidah. The only difference between miracles and laws of nature is the frequency with which they occur. But the point is, the more we perceive and recognise the love and energy and effort that G-d pours into creating this world, the more we are filled with love.
Rabbeinu Yona (in his commentary on Pirkei Avot 1:3) has an approach that’s subtly different. He says that we can cultivate a love of G-d by recognising all of the personal kindnesses that he has done for us. Starting with the mere fact that we are alive – the Talmud teaches that we are meant to give thanks for every breath of air. But by meditating on the fact that everything we have – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the roof over our head, the people in our lives, the knowledge and wisdom we’ve accumulated – is a gift from our Creator, we can develop a deep appreciation and love for Him. Rabbeinu Yona says that another pathway to loving G-d is to contemplate his greatness and grandeur – and the fact that despite his unimaginable and ungraspable loftiness, He is nevertheless interested and involved in the goings on of our lives.
Rashi offers a third path to the love of G-d. Citing the above-mentioned verse from this week’s Torah portion, “And you shall love the Lord your G-d …”, he notes that in the very next verse, it says, “And behold these things which I command you today shall be on your heart.” Says Rashi, according to the interpretation of Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, that the verse is teaching us the formula for loving G-d, which is through the commandments of the Torah. How do the mitzvot bring us to love G-d? Love is predicated on knowledge, and through the mitzvot we come to know G-d. Just as you can come to know a person by what they stand for, and by the outcomes they want to be realised in the world, so too we can gain some understanding of G-d through the 613 mitzvot He gave to us, which are the revealed expressions of His will. So for example, when G-d commands us to be kind and compassionate, to deal sensitively with others, to be ethical in business, to rest and spiritually rejuvenate ourselves once a week, to uphold standards of truth and honesty and justice, this tells us something about who He is and what He wants.
But perhaps performing the Torah’s commandments isn’t just about knowing G-d. Perhaps in some sense we are also giving to G-d. By living in accordance with the commandments, we are dedicating our lives to G-d’s will, we are doing what He wishes us to do, what He created us to do. And this “giving” itself can generate love. Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that giving is more than an expression of love, it’s also what activates love. The more one gives, says Rav Dessler, the more one loves. He explains that this is why parents tend to love their children more than children love their parents. Most of the giving goes in that direction – from parent to child – therefore the love also flows more powerfully in that direction. That giving and loving are two sides of the same coin is expressed in the Hebrew language by the fact that the root of the Hebrew word for love, “ahava”, is the the word “hav”, which means to give. We see that any loving relationship must be rooted in giving; one can’t speak meaningfully of loving another without giving to them. And so it is with G-d. We can’t speak about loving G-d without giving to Him, which we do through the mitzvot.
So far, we’ve uncovered four approaches to loving G-d – through a sense of wonderment at the natural world He created; through an appreciation for the personal kindnesses he has done for us; through knowing Him by acquainting ourselves with, and carrying out, the commandments; and also through giving to Him by living our lives in accordance with His will.
The important thing to remember, however, is that loving G-d is our natural state of being. The Dubna Maggid captures this with a beautiful parable. He says just like when rescuing a trapped bird one doesn’t have to actively return it to its nest – one only needs to release it and it will find its way back there instinctively; so too, to return to, or rediscover, our innate love for G-d, all we need do is release ourselves from whatever is impeding us. The strategies we’ve outlined here are ways of doing exactly that; catalysts for revealing what is already deep inside us. The Torah says that we are created in G-d’s image; that our souls are in some way a reflection of the Divine. And it is this reflection of G-d within each one of us that naturally draws us close to Him. Like a bird flying home to its nest. The place that’s warm and safe and comfortable. The place we belong. The place we love.