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DEARLY BELOVED

by Ranon Cortell    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Now, O Israel, what does Hashem ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 10:12).

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"Now, O Israel, what does Hashem ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 10:12).

These stirring words begin Moses' emotional plea to the Jewish people for them to follow Hashem's commandments when they enter His Holy Land. This introduction to his powerful exhortation makes mention of two of the most important concepts in our service of Hashem - the love of G-d, and the fear or awe of G-d. These two concepts are the very bedrock of our Divine service, and it is by perfecting these two components, by serving G-d in reverence and adoration, that we reach our highest potential, shlaimut (completeness).

Several questions about these two foundations come to mind. Firstly, what does it mean that we must serve G-d out of love and fear? Secondly, how can we attempt to love Hashem - isn't love an uncontrollable emotion that you either feel or do not feel, but cannot simply produce when asked to do so? Lastly, how can we achieve these two starry summits, or at least begin the journey upwards?

Our sages explain that there are two levels of fear of Hashem. One level is the fear of punishment, and although it is capable of inspiring someone to follow the proper path, this is not the ultimate yir'ah (feeling of awe) about which the Torah here speaks. The level of awe to which the Torah refers is a person's awareness that he stands in the presence of the Almighty on a constant basis. Much as one would be loath to act in a vulgar fashion in front of someone whom one respects, admires, and honors, similarly the constant presence of the King of kings demands a careful weighing of one's actions. If we could only picture the constant presence of Hashem, Master of the universe, standing, watching, and waiting at our every action, how precise we would be not to err in any way!

They explain the love of G-d in a similar fashion. There is one level of love where the love is based on the benefits (emotional or physical) received from the beloved. This is not the true love that the Torah here addresses, because in such a case one loves the benefits of the beloved and not the beloved itself; therefore the love is fleeting. True love is when one feels drawn to the beloved because there is something pure and beautiful about the beloved to which one wants to be attached for its own sake.

This can be compared to one who wants to purchase a work of art simply because of its ethereal beauty. This level of love is the ultimate goal of the Torah's command to love Hashem. The Sfas Emes, a great Torah scholar and leader in the 19th century, explains that the truest love is where one sees oneself in another person and desires to become attached to the other person because he or she is an integral part of one's being. This is why the Hebrew word for love, ahavah, is formed from the Aramaic word hav, give. By giving and investing in others, one begins to see others as a part of oneself, and it is then that one truly loves the other person. Therefore, explains the Sfas Emes, the ultimate love of Hashem is when one sees that one is similar to and, therefore, a part of Hashem, by following His mitzvot, which really consists of acting as Hashem acts. As the Midrash states, just as He is merciful so must you act mercifully; just as He is graceful so must you act with grace, etc. Hence, one can will to love by making oneself similar, or a part of, the beloved.

These two exalted levels of love and awe of G-d are difficult to attain, and very few succeed at achieving the ultimate perfection of these two goals, but in order to attempt the summit one must begin the climb. It is through the constant interplay of these two aspects of relating to Hashem that a person slowly climbs this ladder towards perfection. As one begins the trek on one of these two routes, one will automatically switch to the other route and back to the first and so on, on a constant basis. One can embark on this noble journey in two ways, both beautifully described by our sages.

The Rambam (Maimonides), in the beginning of his most extensive work, Mishneh Torah, describes one possible strategy. He writes that one begins to feel true love for Hashem by looking at His wondrous creations. Although the Rambam delves into the spiritual worlds and their spiritual perfection, one can attain a love for Hashem by observing the natural world as well. One need only study something as "mundane" (in truth, it is not mundane at all) as the visual nervous system, in which each nerve is only able to communicate about one dot in the visual field, and then only by choosing one of two options, sending an impulse or remaining stable. In ways in which we mortals do not comprehend, our brain remarkably translates these single on/off signals into one complete picture, of which somehow we understand every individual part. How perfect and complete is this won drous universe. How symmetrical, orderly, and magnificent are G-d's creations!

Through examining this physical perfection and the spiritually perfect upper hemispheres, one will be filled with an intense desire to know the G-d who created and maintains these wonders. As one continues on this path of love, one will also be subsequently filled with awe at the all-encompassing kindness of Hashem. Subsequently, one will develop the ultimate awe and love of Hashem by constantly switching between these two feelings, climbing one rung each time. This path ultimately leads to the highest knowledge of and attachment to Hashem.

The Malbim, a classic Torah commentator at the end of the 19th century, explains another strategy. He writes that one will be struck with a sense of awe as one becomes more aware of Hashem's constant providence over Man's actions. When one studies how G-d has molded the history of nations, keeping the Jewish people existent despite all odds; when one realizes that G-d is responding to one's actions and believes that G-d is not aloof but intimately involved with one's every action; one cannot help but feel the sheer awesomeness of His presence. If one sees clearly that Hashem is watching and responding to Man's actions, one will be fearful lest he tread against Hashem's path. This, in turn, will move him to act much as the King acts, because one cannot err when following in the steps of the King. This is why the verse follows the fear of G-d with the statement that you shall "walk in all His ways." In so doing, one will feel a true love and desire to attach oneself even further to G-d.

However, even these goals seem esoteric and loftily difficult to achieve. How can we begin this journey from where we are spiritually? The sages seem to relate to this problem in the verse itself when they ask how could Moses say that Hashem only asks that you fear Him and love Him, as though that is a simple thing. Isn't it quite a difficult goal? They answer (as understood by the Kli Yakar, another classic commentary) that for the generation of the desert who saw Hashem's overwhelming presence on a constant basis, these goals were significantly easier to achieve. But for our generation, which does not see open miracles, how can we begin the journey of realizing these two elevated levels?

The Da'as Zekenim, a commentary composed by the Tosafist school of the 12th and 13th centuries, provides an interesting insight on this verse that may help us to begin. The sages say that the words of the verse "Mah Hashem Elokecha sho'el mimcha - What does Hashem ask of you?" can be homiletically read "Me'ah Hashem Elokecha shoel mimcha - He asks from you a hundred." This, they explain, refers to the requirement upon an individual to recite one hundred berachot (blessings) to Hashem every day. Accordingly, the verse reads basically that Hashem asks us to say multitudinal berachot every day and through these we will come to fear, serve, and love Him.

By blessing G-d on a constant basis for His kindnesses and commandments, we can start towards the goals of awe and love. One need only concentrate during some of the constant blessings we have the opportunity of saying during the day to see how true this statement really is. Slowly, one will begin to feel the long-reaching power and constant involvement of Hashem when, through our blessings, we realize that it is He who gives us the power of sight, brings forth food for us from the land, regulates our body so that it should function in perfect harmony, creates the wonders of the earth, and whose strength fills the world.

What an overwhelming feeling of awe we would feel if we would only concentrate on the numerous and constant things Hashem does for us. At the same time, by reciting these blessings we will become cognizant of how perfect and true Hashem is, and we will be overwhelmed with a desire to attach ourselves to Him, to love Him. How kind and just is the Creator who commanded the mitzvot for us so that we may perfect ourselves, who made food both tasty and aromatic for our pleasure, who allows us to awaken each morning, and to walk on our two feet. How perfect are Your ways Hashem; help us to follow in them, to truly be in awe of You, and thereby recognize our full potential.

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Ranon Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.

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