>Shabbat Vaet-hanan 5771

In our tradition of mitzvot, we are commanded to do (or not to do) many things. Rarely are we commanded to feel something. Love, in particular, is rarely commanded; in fact, such a mitzvah appears just three times in the Torah. We are required to love our fellow [as ourselves] (Leviticus 19:18); we must love the stranger in our midst (Leviticus 19:34); and, in words we recite in prayer twice daily, we are commanded to love God: Ve-ahavta et Adonai Elohekha (Deuteronomy 6:6).

Coming on the heels of the six most famous words of dogma in our tradition, the Shema, we find a curious sequence in these consecutive verses. First, we declare that God is alone, unique and incomparable; then, we are told we must love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We are to verbalize this love in the form of a lesson conveyed to our children.  The details concerning this mitzvah of love are greater than the other two, of our fellow and the stranger. The stranger’s need for love is obvious, and it is also fitting that we take such a mitzvah seriously; after all, we were strangers once too. And we are wise to love our fellow in ways that would be reciprocated to our benefit.

One of my favorite musical artists is Peter Gabriel, whose songs have always touched on human insecurities. One particular song articulates the natural human need for affection. “And in this moment, I need to be needed/With this darkness all around me I like to be liked/In this emptiness and fear, I want to be wanted/’Cause I love to be loved/I love to be loved.” The desperate vulnerability is unmistakable.

So the command to love God raises a serious question–in fact, a series of serious questions. Rabbi Norman Lamm, in his book The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism, phrases the question eloquently: “If indeed God commands us to love Him, does that not in some way betray a need in Him to be loved? And does that not imply some lack, some vulnerability or imperfection, in God? And does that not, in turn, run counter to the teaching of the Jewish tradition that God is perfect, absolute, totally autonomous, and in need of nothing or no one?” (p. 113)

Does God need to be needed, love to be loved? What do you believe? What does this verse teach us about our own lives and loves? We’ll continue the conversation on Shabbat morning in shul.