Parashat Va'et'hanan

Love The Lord

Moses' message to relate to God through love, not only through fear, is especially relevant in the modern age.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

What is the proper emotional attitude to take toward God? In our day, as in the past, religious human beings divide into two general camps. Some argue that we must fear and venerate God, while others stress the need to love God.

The two modes of relationship, fear and love, have a long history within Judaism. Both yirat shamayim (fear of heaven) and ahavat ha-Shem (love of God) find ample attestation in traditional and modern writings. While most Jews retain elements of both, individuals and communities tend to stress one tendency over the other.

The natural consequence of a stress on fearing God is to expect human-divine relating to work in one direction. God commands and people obey. Halakhah (Jewish law) is treated as immutable because people, including community leaders, are overwhelmed by a sense of their own inadequacy and insignificance. The highest form of human response becomes complete, unquestioning acquiescence.

While fear of God may be important as a secondary value, preventing the diminution of God into a rubber-stamp of our latest preferences or our most egregious shortcomings, there is a long precedent that gives priority to relating to God in love.

Today's Torah portion highlights the value of ahavat ha-Shem as a primary mode of Jewish piety. Standing before the assembled tribes of Israel, Moses recalls the stirring moment at Mount Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments. He then continues with the Shema, reminding us of God's unity and pledging our loyalty to God's exclusive service. Immediately following, Moses continues his instructions to the people by telling them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." For Moses, the most important component of serving God is to love God.

In his commentary to the Torah, Rashi (11th century France) affirms that judgment. He explains that Moses meant, "Perform God's commandments out of love. One cannot compare a person who acts out of love to one who acts from fear, who serves a master out of fear. When the latter feels overburdened, he leaves and goes away." Rashi, keen student of the human heart, knows that fear can motivate behavior only so long as the power of compulsion remains. As soon as the source of fear loses its strength, service stops.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.