A Study in the Nature of True Love

And you should love Hashem, your L-rd, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all of your possessions.  (Sefer Devarim 6:5)

Most of the commandments address actions and behaviors

This passage is the source in the Torah for the commandment to love Hashem.  Our Sages discuss the nature of this love and how one fulfills this commandment.  In studying its various aspects, it is possible to lose sight of the most fundamental element of this commandment.  Let us identify this element.

The Torah can be described as including two components. One component is the 613 commandments.  The second component is the narrative portion.  The narrative begins with an account of creation, presents the lives of the patriarchs, and describes the emergence of the Jewish people from bondage and its development into a nation.

The narrative provides context and a foundation for many of the commandments. For example, the observance of Pesach recalls our redemption from Egypt.  Shabbat recalls creation.  The commandment of circumcision was first given to Avraham and at Sinai it was incorporated into the Torah’s 613 commandments.  These are obvious examples of the relationship between the Torah’s narrative and its commandments.  The relationship is multi-faceted and it is extensive.  In short, the narrative is more than a history.  It is incorporated into and finds expression in many of the Torah’s commandments.  In short, the Torah can be interpreted as focusing upon its commandments with narrative provided only in order to give context and meaning to these commandments.     

Most of these commandments either require or restrict actions and behaviors.  For example, we are commanded to observe Shabbat through resting from mundane labors, place a mezuzah on our doorpost, eat matzah on the first night of Pesach.  We are prohibited from serving idols, charging our co-religionists interest, oppressing the helpless or disadvantaged. 

Some commandments may seem to not engender or prohibit activities. For example, we are required to respect our parents, love our neighbor, and remember the Shabbat day.  However, each of these commandments actually finds expression in action.  We respect our parents through specific behaviors.  For example, we are required to care for the material needs of our parents and if our parents lack the resources required for their support, then we must expend our own resources.  Love for our neighbor requires more than a sense of comradery.  It requires that we treat our neighbor and his or her possessions in a manner consistent with that love.  We recall the Shabbat day by introducing it with the recitation of kiddush on Friday night. The same analysis applies to the negative commandments. The prohibition against hating one’s neighbor finds expression in prohibited behaviors.  For example, one who feels that he has been wronged my not harbor hatred of his adversary but is required to engage the person whom he feels has harmed him and seek reconciliation.

This does not suggest that the Torah is not concerned with one’s inner self.  Many of the commandments are clearly designed to impact our inner lives.  On Pesach, we retell the events of our bondage and redemption.  The purpose of this commandment is to nurture within us a connection with these events.  However, even those commandments that are designed to impact our inner selves achieve their aim through directed actions and behaviors. 

In summary, most commandments are focused upon our actions.  They enjoin us to perform actions or restrict our actions.  Many commandments use actions to impact our inner-selves and our perspective.  Very few commandments directly address our inner-selves.  A result of this phenomenon is that one may erroneously conclude that the Torah limits is instructions to our external expressions and does not instruct us directly regarding our inner-lives.

To love Hashem means to forge a relationship with Him

The commandment to love Hashem demonstrates the error of this conclusion.  Maimonides’ treatment of this commandment stresses this issue.  As noted above, the commandment to love one’s neighbor engenders an obligation to give expression to this love though actions.  In his discussion of this commandment, Maimonides describes these actions and behaviors.  In contrast, Maimonides’ discussion of the commandant to love Hashem focuses exclusively upon one’s inner experience.  It does not include a list of actions that should be engendered by this love. 

This means that the Torah is concerned with and does provide instruction regarding our inner lives.  We are instructed to love Hashem.  Through this commandment, the Torah communicates to us that we must forge a relationship with Hashem.  The commandment is observed in one’s heart and soul and not through external expression. 

This point should be emphasized.  Observance of the Torah requires more than external actions and behaviors.  It requires an internal commitment to and connection with Hashem.  Maimonides regards the command to love Hashem as one of the most fundamental.  He indicates his estimation of its centrality by placing this commandment in the opening section of his Mishne Torah – his code of Torah law.

Love of Hashem should be based upon knowledge

How does one fulfill this commandment?  The Sages have various views on this issue.  We will focus on Maimonides’ position because it is sometimes misunderstood.  Maimonides maintains that love of Hashem cannot be achieved through assertion of one’s will.  One cannot will oneself to love Hashem.  Instead, this love emerges organically from an appreciation of Hashem’s infinite and unfathomable wisdom.  One studies and contemplates His creation and His Torah and achieves a glimpse into this wisdom.  This recognition evokes love of the source of this boundless wisdom. 

Maimonides explains that the greater one’s knowledge and understanding the greater is one’s love of Hashem.  This follows from Maimonides’ explanation of this love.  Appreciation and recognition of Hashem’s immeasurable wisdom increases with the growth of one’s knowledge and understanding of the Torah and created universe. 

Because Maimonides asserts that love of Hashem is founded upon knowledge, he is sometimes interpreted as promoting a cold and unemotional relationship with Hashem.  This is an improper and inaccurate interpretation of his position.  Instead, Maimonides is promoting a love of Hashem that is true and authentic. 

Love of Hashem is an enduring love

In order to understand this issue, we must consider the nature of love.  Consider two couples.  One couple is a set of newlyweds and the other couple is a set of long-married partners.  The members of each couple deeply love one another.  But which couple share the sincerer or truer love?

It is very possible that the newlyweds feel their love for one another more intensely than the long-married couple.  This is one of the differences between the new love and enduring love.  New love is intense and compelling.  Enduring love is more quiet and steady.  But let us not be misled by this intensity and study the issue more carefully. 

The newlyweds do not yet know each other well. Their intense love for one another is based partially upon true appreciation of each other and partially upon unfounded fantasy or idealization of one another. Their love is intense but it is only partially based upon truth and reality. 

Now, let us compare this love to that of the long-married couple.  These partners fully understand and appreciate one another.  Their love is not motivated by fantasy.  It is founded upon a true and realistic appraisal of one another.  They share true love. 

The point of this analysis is that the intensity of love and its sincerity or truth are not directly related and may even be inversely related.  In other words, the intensity may simply reflect an enormous degree of fantasized idealization of the beloved.  Maimonides is asserting that our love of Hashem must be based upon His revelation of Himself to us.  He reveals Himself to us through creation and his Torah.  If we base our love of Hashem upon our study and understanding of Hashem’s creation and His Torah, then we are on the path to true and sincere love of Hashem.      

Love of Hashem is an intense love

However, Maimonides makes a further assertion that seems to contradict this analysis.  In order to identify this apparent contradiction, let us review an aspect of our discussion.  We observed that the love of the newlyweds may be much more intense than the love of the long-married couple.  This seems to be a result of the element of fantasy in new love.  This element of fantasy is an idealization of one’s partner.  Because the partner is idealized, the beloved is a more perfect object of adoration.  Maimonides proposes that our love of Hashem must be based upon truth and understanding.  It does not include the element of fantasy that is responsible for the intensity of new love.  We would expect that the absence of fantasy would deprive love of Hashem of the intensity of new love.  However, Maimonides asserts that this not the case.  He explains that love of Hashem can exceed even the most passionate love for another human being.  How is this possible?

The answer lies in once more considering our analysis of love and its forms.  As we have discussed, the intensity of new love requires an element of fantasy.  This fantasy is an idealization of the beloved.  Because the beloved is ideal he or she becomes the object intense adoration.  However, the beloved is not actually the perfect idealized person that is the object of the fantasy.  The departure of the fantasy from reality is the flaw or defect within this love.  It is the reason it cannot endure.  With time and growing familiarity, the idealization of the beloved is replaced by a truer assessment.  Enduring love ensues when the couple learns for love one another despite the flaws that they identify in one another.

Now, let us apply this analysis to love of Hashem.  In this instance the love is not based upon fantasy but upon truth and understanding.  It is not build upon a flawed foundation.  In new love between human beings, the idealization of the beloved is imaginary.  Hashem’s perfection is not imaginary it is real!  The intensity of the love does not subside as one becomes more familiar with the beloved.  Instead, as one’s understanding and knowledge expands, one’s appreciation of Hashem’s perfection grows.  In other words, our love of Hashem can combine the stability of an enduring relationship and the intensity of new love. 

Maimonides promotes a love of Hashem founded upon knowledge.  This is not a cold love devoid of emotion and warmth.  Instead, Maimonides maintains that love of Hashem founded upon knowledge and understanding is the most intense and enduring love that a person can experience.