Loving God – Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11)

[I wrote this on Friday but was unable to finish. Catching up on the backlog of mail, messages and chores upon our return has taken so much more time than I expected. In the rest of the week, I will try to complete and send out other blogs that I was unable to conclude.]

This section is often referred to as the crown of the Torah. The portion continues the story of the conquest of the Promised Land and contains the second iteration of the Ten Advisories, otherwise called the Ten Commandments. The first version appeared in Exodus 20:01 – 20:17.

Deuteronomy pithily offers one premier positive advisory. In a common English translation, it reads: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The Hebrew is simpler: “YHVH our God YHVH one.” In the Reform Hebrew Book of Prayer, the shema is repeated throughout the volume and rendered as: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad). The saying continues: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

I simplify the commandment of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 even more: “Love God.” But what does that mean?

What is loving? Who is God? Deuteronomy is much more concerned with Israel’s relationship to God, the first question, rather than God’s nature, the second question. Further, the first is the much more difficult query to answer so I begin with the second. I offer ten alternative interpretations of the question: Who is God?

  1. Though there are a plethora of gods, YHVH is the only God of the Hebrews; God is our God, our only god, the one to which the Hebrews, the Jews, are loyal.
  2. There are no other gods; YHVH is the only God period – monotheism.
  3. God is one in the sense that He is so unique that he is incomparable to any other entity and, in the end of days, will be accepted as the one and only God.
  4. God is one in the sense of indivisible and is not divisible into parts.
  5. In the rank order of gods, YHVH, our unique God, is number one. God is not an amalgam of two gods; Ashur, previously predominant, was superseded by YHVH just as Ashur superseded Marduk.
  6. God is the unity behind various multiple divine revelations.
  7. YVHV of Samaria and YHVH of Teman are one and the same even though belonging to different places.
  8. God is perfection and, in Aristotle’s terms, is the final cause. God is telos.
  9. YHVH is the name of our unique and incomparable God who has primacy of place among the spectrum of gods and is the same God even when identified with different place; that God, YHVH, is evoked by a name that is no-name because the emphasis is on one kind of service to God.
  10.  God is He who He shall be. God is, but also is not, for God is becoming. God is revelation. God is He who changes. God is He who reveals Himself over time – ehyeh-asher-ehyeh. I shall be He who I shall be. God is hidden and concealed so no one knows His nature, but God reveals Himself in His actions in history.

The odd numbers above – 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 – are all from the Tanakh and, therefore, comparative and relational conceptions of God. God is ours and no one else’s (1) – related to Israelites. In comparing God to other gods, YHVH is incomparable (3). On the other hand, God, our God, is comparable for He ranks the highest amongst all the gods; God is first among many. (5) God relates to specific pieces of the earth’s geography and belongs to every holy place, but God cannot be claimed by any one geographic space. (7) Our God’s name, YHVH, is a tetragrammaton. God, paradoxically, cannot be named; God is one in the sense that God is the only entity that has a personal name, but one which humans cannot assign to God. God’s name is ineffable and unutterable. Therefore, in comparison to other gods, but in relationship to the Israelites, God cannot be branded by humans. God assigned humans the role of naming all things – except God himself. Thus, the Tanakh refers to God as YHVH over 6,800 times but the emphasis is on the uniform expectations of behaviour. (9) Each successive iteration includes but enlarges upon the previous one.

The even numbers above – 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 – are all philosophical conceptions of God in which God is a class with only one member. God is one and only. (2) God is indivisible. (4) There may be many revelations of God, but God is one; God is the One that may appear in many forms. (6) There may be many places that are holy and with which God is identified, but God belongs to no place; God is spatial in that God is everywhere and temporal only in the sense that God is eternal and extends unchanging through all time. (8)

However, number 10 above is the only philosophical conception of God that both contradicts all of the previous philosophical definitions and the only one consistent with the Tanakh. God is many, divisible, reveals Himself in many places and in different expressions and ways at different times for God is not Being; God is Becoming. As such, this depiction not only contradicts but overcomes and raises up the previous philosophical iterations.

The preference for the tenth philosophical definition of God consistent with the various identifiers in the Tanakh is further reinforced when we examine the human relationship to God as one of love.

When we move from Deuteronomy 6:4 to 6:5, we are commanded to love this one God. In the Mendelssohn chumash, that love is first focused on the object of that love, on the nature of God – an infinite perfection which we are commanded to understand. Love, in this case, is purely intellectual. But the translation goes on to instruct us “to do what is pleasant in His eyes.” The focus is not on the nature of God as a perfect and all-powerful being and our understanding of that perfection, but on God’s feeling, on God feeling pleasure by and through our behaviour.

As Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto; 1800-1865) comments in Marty Lockshin’s intriguing dissection of the mishmash of Greek thought, the first part, and Jewish sentiment, the second part, of the above two modes of depicting God:

“medieval Jewish] philosophers imported the ideas of Greek thinkers into the Torah, and they changed various aspects of the Torah to get them to concur with the [classical] philosophers. And since this was an impossible thing to do, they took Torah and philosophy and made of them a mishmash that is neither Torah nor philosophy, and they ended up losing on both counts.”

The first part follows the way of the Greek philosophers and the second follows the way of Jewish scholars. Greek philosophers, primarily Plato and Aristotle, believed that norms of ethical behaviour should be derived from knowledge, either knowledge of oneself – “Know thyself” – or knowledge of transcendental ideas or ultimate ends. Jewish thought, on the other hand, insisted that the path to justice and righteousness was dependent on the degree to which God found favour, the degree to which God is pleased with one’s behaviour. Does what you do please God or does what you do depend on an understanding of perfection? Do you do because you know or do you know through doing?

In the Greek view, God is never jealous, angry and, sometimes, even contrite. In the Jewish view, God is a stern deliverer of justice, but also is governed by the feeling of mercy. God is imperfect. God sometimes errs, but God grows through recognizing His errors. In that sense, God is much closer to humans whereas, in the Greek view, God is as distant as the stars, indeed, more distant in His infinite perfection.

The Jewish view is strongly relational and the goal is to do what gives pleasure to the Other who is God, and not to do what is displeasing to Him. Do your best to accomplish this. Put your whole heart and soul and strength into the effort. A half-assed exertion will not do. That means that love is not a sentiment nor a passion, but a deed, an action, an expression through behaviour.

How do you love the stranger? You welcome him into your home. You feed him. You do what brings pleasure to the other. You are also instructed to love your neighbour. That love is expressed through chesed, a covenantal obligation that is as strong as that owed by a vassal to his lord, but, unlike the latter, is not done under threat of coercion. It is not carried out as an obligation, but as an act of loving kindness, of voluntarily doing what is right in an action. Be kind without considering any reciprocity.

But chesed is not charity. It is what friends do for one another – they mind each other’s backs. They have an unwritten contract between one another. The relationship is mutual and is especially required when one neighbour is in a superior position to the other. Reciprocity is expected but not commanded. It is a relationship which persists and cannot be shaken, even though it undoubtedly has its ups and downs and even though over time positions can be reversed. Friends are faithful to one another. And neighbourly relations should aspire to be on the same level as friendship. That is what it means to do what is pleasing to God.

You do not retreat and become a monk or a nun. You do not leave the world of deeds and responsibilities for a life of contemplation. You do not adore God on bended knee, but in an engagement with God. You argue with God. You confront God. For God is your truest friend and loyalty requires honesty. And expects honesty in return.

Remember the past. Observe the present. And listen for the future. Lecha Dodi (לכה דודי) (see the end) where the relationship of God to man is depicted as even closer than friendship, as that of a groom towards His bride. Together they welcome Shabat. Then we can understand that consistency does not entail identical repetition, but God’s advice in Exodus can be given at Sinai (Exodus) and at Horeb (Deuteronomy). But the differences not only refer to where the revelation takes place, but to what is revealed. In Exodus, observing Shabat reminds us that creation took place over six days but on the seventh day, God rested. In Deuteronomy, Shabat is a reminder that Jews were once slaves in Egypt when they were not permitted to have a day of rest. The sacral and the sociological rationales are not in conflict but are complementary, are embodied in different expressions at different times.

Further, in neither case are they real commandments and it is most likely that one tablet was a copy of the other rather than recording some sayings on one and the rest on the other. And they can only be reduced to and homogenized into ten by manipulating what is found in the two different texts. In any case, they are not orders from on high, but rather advisory “sayings.” They are admonitions not reinforced by punishment, especially the ultimate penalty of death. In Exodus, God directly advises; in Deuteronomy, the advice is recorded in the third rather than the first person as both a recollection and rewrite of the original.

Therefore, we must remember (זכור) not only our past, but what came before the historical development of the Israelites. We must attend to and observe the present and listen (שמור) to and heed our God. We must enact and do for the future what we remember from the past and combine with the present, not through blind obedience, but to deliver on our commitments להקשיב)). We attend by giving our careful attention to what should be done.

Loving God is voluntary and does not mean we obey a tyrant. Love is freely given without the requirement of reciprocity, but with that expectation. It is not given as a conditional. The ethos is one designed for a community in which everyone enjoys equal dignity whatever any difference in status. It is an appeal to the human heart, not the mind, though it may take the mind to discern the difference. It is a recognition that applauds dissent rather than teaches submission in a society where everyone is free to question and criticize the highest authority in the land.

Lecha Dodi (in translation)

Come, my Beloved, to meet the bride; let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath. [After each paragraph, we repeat the refrain, “לכה דודי לקראת כלה, פני שבת נקבלה.” Lecha Dodi Likrat Kala, P’nei Shabbat N’kabelah.] 

“Obse​rve” and “Remember​ the Sabbath day,” the only God caused us to hear in a single utterance​: the Lord is One, and his name is One to his renown and his glory and his praise. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Come,​​​​​​​​​​ let us go to meet the Sabbath, for it is a well-spri​ng of blessing;​ from the beginning​, from of old it was ordained,​—last in productio​n, first in thought. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

O sanctuary​ of our King, O regal city, arise, go forth from thy overthrow​; long enough hast thou dwelt in the valley of weeping; verily He will have compassion upon thee. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Shake​ thyself from the dust, arise, put on the garments of thy glory, O my people! Through the son of Jesse, the Bethlehem​ite, draw Thou nigh unto my soul, redeem it. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Arous​e thyself, arouse thyself, for thy light is come: arise, shine; awake, awake; give forth a song; the glory of the Lord is revealed upon thee. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Be not ashamed, neither be confounde​d. Why art thou cast down, and why art thou disquiete​d? The poor of my people trust in thee, and the city shall be built on her own mound. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

And they that spoil thee shall be a spoil, and all that would swallow thee shall be far away: thy God shall rejoice over thee, as a bridegroo​m rejoiceth​ over his bride. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Thou shalt spread abroad on the right hand and on the left, and thou shalt revere​ the Lord. Through the offspring​ of Perez, we also shall rejoice and be glad. 
Come,​​​​​​​​​​ etc. 

Come in peace, thou crown of thy husband, with rejoicing​ and with cheerfulness, in the midst of the faithful of the chosen people: come, O bride; come, O bride. 

Come,​​​​​​​​​​ my Beloved, to meet the bride; let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath. 

By Rabbi Shelomo Halevi Alkabets (16th century) 
Based on the trans​lation from The Standard Prayer book by Simeon Singer (1915) (public domain)

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