In this week’s Torah portion Parshas Ekev, Moshe gives the Jewish people a tall order:
Now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, only to have awe of him, to go in all his ways and to love him with all your heart and all your soul. (Devarim 10:12)
This commandment to love God is not only mentioned here, but it is repeated several times in this week's Torah portion; 23 times in total throughout the Book of Devarim.
The commentaries ask, how is it possible to command someone to have a certain emotion, do we have that much control over our emotions? Can a person love something or someone simply because he or she is told to do so?
Furthermore, what does it mean to love God with all our heart? Surely there are people in our lives who we love very much. Can a person love multiple things, each one with all his heart? Does the love that one has for other things or other people in this world detract from loving God with all his heart?
To understand this commandment, we must make a very important distinction between the mitzvah to love God and most other mitzvot in the Torah. As a general rule, the mitzvot are a set of tools given to us in order to build our spiritual selves, to purify us and allow us access to our Godly soul. They are practical steps that can be performed by anyone, from the simplest Jew to the advanced Torah scholar, that affect us in a very deep way. Simple acts like making a blessing on food can elevate our physical bodies through what we eat. Lighting Shabbat candles can bring peace to the home. And wrapping ourselves in Tallit and Tefillin can help us cleanse our thoughts and physical desires.
But loving God is neither a tool nor a practical step. It is the end goal of all that we are commanded to do, the sum total of our mitzvot, the desired results of living a life of Torah. The more mitzvot we perform, the more we gain an awareness of God, an awareness that quickly becomes a relationship; a relationship that quickly becomes a loving connection and unity. In fact, the very root of the word mitzvah means connection.
This is precisely why the commandment to love God appears in the Torah for the first time in Devarim, more than 80 percent of the way through the Torah! We first needed to build ourselves through Torah before we can even begin to discuss loving God. The Torah isn’t just commanding us to flip a switch in our hearts and start loving God. It is telling us to consciously keep an awareness that the Mitzvot are meant to open us up to that relationship.
When the Torah says to love Hashem with all your heart, it isn’t excluding loving other things. In fact it is through building and loving others that enhances our ability to truly love God. As we experience love in this world, it develops in our heart an understanding of closeness and we can channel that to connect deeper and deeper to Hashem.
Our Sages teach us that when there is love between husband and wife, the Divine Presence rests between them and blessing is found in their home. When we take a spouse, we aren't only entering into a covenant with a significant other, we are entering into a new bond with Hashem. We can now reach new levels of holiness and purity that didn't previously exist, that can only be understood by one who has deeply loved someone in such an intimate way. And when this husband and wife have a child together, they acquire a new title of being partners with Hashem in creating this soul and bringing life into God's world.
A meaningful friendship can also bring one closer to the Almighty. In the book of Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), we are taught that when two friends sit together and speak words of Torah (or meaningful discussion) it is as if the Divine Presence rests between them.
Therefore we see that the combination of performing Mitzvot and learning how to love others are the 2 ingredients necessary to fulfilling the ultimate commandment, to love Hashem with all our hearts.