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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת יתרו, תשפ״א

Parshat Yitro, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

Love of God - The Personal and the Practical

The medieval poet Rumi writes, “The human intellect is a place where hesitation and uncertainty take root/ There is no way to overcome this hesitation...except by falling in love.”

Deep, true love inspires us towards action and propels us away from confusion and apathy. We spend our money on essentials and on trinkets for those we love, we work for different modes of justice in the world to affect the futures of those we care for, and often, we even change the essential aspects of how we walk in the world in order to gain the affection and approval of those we come home to each day. In Jewish tradition, we are no strangers to the concept of love. In our first book of the Torah, we witness loving relationships between father and son - Avraham and Yitzhak - and husband and wife - Ya’akov and Rahel. Later in the Torah, several times over, we are commanded some iteration of v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha - and you shall love the stranger as yourself. Today, we see the first glimpse of the Jewish people’s ability to love God, in our injunction not to worship idols, as God promises kindness to ohavai - the ones who love Me. Even later, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, we are commanded again and again, V’ahavta et Adonai elohekha - And you shall love God.

The love we see in our Hebrew Bible is not perfect - family relationships are often strained, the prophets scream at the people Israel for their lack of affection and respect for those who need it most, and the people Israel and God often don’t see eye to eye, to put it mildly. But at the same time, love inspires great joy - the lovers Yitzhak and Rivkah play with each other, and the Psalmist’s love for God inspires joyful prayer, with musical instruments and dance.

The Torah shows both the intensity and the importance of imperfect, human love. Beyond that intensity and importance, the Torah jumpstarts the Jewish people’s journey towards love of God through the fulfillment of active commandments, through concrete action.

For a demonstration of how we can achieve a love for God as intense and real as any other human love, let’s turn to the first line of the V’ahavta, a paragraph taken from the book of Deuteronomy. V’ahavta et Adonai eloheikha b’khol l’vav’kha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol m’odekha. And you shall love God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with everything else you’ve got. Love of God requires one’s entire being. Participating in mitzvot such as visiting the mourner, accompanying the bride, and even studying in a classical teacher-student relationship are all emotionally and intellectually charged. They require our entire lev, a Hebrew word that encompasses both the heart and the mind. Coming to Shabbat services and engaging in Jewish social justice issues often requires coming face-to-face with big theological, philosophical, and political ideas, conversations that inspire deep, internal work. They require all of our souls - kol nafshekha. And further, mitzvot require all of our resources - kol m’odekha. Between synagogue dues, Judaica bought for wedding couples, lulavim and etrogim for Sukkot, and food for holidays that is both plentiful and kosher, it’s incredibly expensive to be a committed Jewish practitioner.

Perhaps more integral to kol m’odekha, mitzvot require our time and our energy - we send kids to religious school and Jewish summer camp, when they could be at soccer practice instead. We sit through hours-long Passover seders, knowing that we have a report due at work in just a couple of days. A loving relationship with God, as with any other loving relationship, requires absolutely all of ourselves.

But why engage in that loving relationship with God, in particular? One simple, meaningful answer could be because that the Torah says so - in fact, the Torah says so six times (by my count) in the book of Deuteronomy alone, but I don’t think that’s all. Love of God, I believe, makes rational sense. Theologize God as you will - Creator, Sustainer, the force that makes for good, the spirit that unifies all beings of the world, or the guy in the sky who points at stuff and makes things happen. As long as your vision of God is of a being or energy that relates at all to the world around us, love for God, for that world you experience each moment, is an act of gratitude for the life you live. And by spending our personal care and resources on that world around us, we may begin to know that world better and to affect change within it. When we radiate action and compassion for someone we love, we often see the effects on how they treat us, and hopefully even on how they walk in the world.

In the same way, when we follow mitzvot that lean more clearly ethical, like giving charity, fighting for environmental or animal justice, or just visiting the sick, all demonstrations of love for God, the world often shows us the concrete effects of the acts we have done. Perhaps in a more hidden way, when we follow mitzvot that cause us to pause and think about how to place specific ritual objects, what words to say when, or what number and order to light candles, we may find ourselves more easily able to enter into spaces of focused mindfulness or gratitude in other aspects of our lives.

And further, love of God demands and inspires growth in relationships with other human beings. It is difficult to follow the commands to love your neighbor as yourself, to support those in need, or to become active in a synagogue community, without creating positive relationships with others. When we love God - that mysterious, distant other - by way of performative, and sometimes illogical action, we practice giving of ourselves in more human relationships. We practice the act of doing what our beloved desires from us, trusting that even if the request doesn’t make sense to us, it is a cherished request for him. And halakhah, as derived initially from Torah and developed throughout history, I believe, is an integral tool for defining those concrete actions with which to express our love for the Divine.

But as love is never static, our loving relationship with God cannot be, either. In any long-term relationship, both loving members will change, either for one another or for other people or purposes outside of the relationship. In Judaism, our relationship to God’s commandments has changed throughout history, and rightly so. Even within the Torah, while our ancestors praised God through building altars throughout the land, by the book Deuteronomy, we are told only to make sacrifices in one place, in God’s “chosen place.” Eventually, God’s “chosen place” becomes our Holy Temple, the mishkan. But then, hundreds of years later, in the year 70 C.E. when both versions of that Temple have been destroyed, a group of Rabbis, the authors of the Talmud, reorganize mitzvot for a dispersed Jewish community, with no central Temple. They interpret and reinterpret the words of Torah to create a less hierarchical Judaism, a Judaism that can be practiced more readily at home, wherever home is. Thrice-daily sacrifices become prayer, and mitzvot are defined in more detail than they are in Torah, to be incorporated better in every-day life practice. Because of the Rabbis, the Toraitic commandment not to cook a kid - a baby goat - in its mother’s milk becomes rules about separating milk and meat dishes. Even within the Talmud, a document written and compiled over a six hundred year period of time, theologies and opinions shift and change. In our two thousand years since, with different social trends and historical circumstances, different Jewish communities, movements, and individual Rabbis have continued that trend of shifting textual interpretation.

We, as a people have changed drastically, and through our evolving experience of the world, we have read God’s messages to us as changing with us, as well.

In Deuteronomy (Devarim), God tells the people Israel through the words of Moshe, Lo bashamayim hi, “It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get [this Torah] for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it? [...] No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” And of course, soon afterwards, Moshe begs the people to love God as a way to achieve long life. The Torah has a long list of laws that, to our modern ears, may seem confusing and sometimes even a little inaccessible, but the Torah also gives us permission to dive into its own interpretation, to trust our own vision of God’s words within it. Action through mitzvot, in this way, brings in the intimacy of love, our ability to really make of our individual relationships with God more of a partnership than a one-way street.

And so, there are some pretty crucial questions at hand. If love for God is so personal, so much in our own hands, why follow a list of laws at all? If interpretation of Jewish law has changed so much in the history of the Jewish people, what are the limits to changing interpretation? As a worldwide Jewish community, we’re all striving towards figuring out the language of love of God, and thus I believe, as community, we are responsible for helping each other figure out what God expects from us in our loving relationship with God. A principle occurs several times in Talmud - kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh - All of Israel is intertwined with one another. The ways in which we each strive to love God affects the rest of us. Over the years, we have created and sustained a Jewish community that has found the Torah to be our central definition of what God wants from us, with the Talmud as a method to flesh out those desires further. With an abundance of legal codes and local customs, we have built and shaped a communal practice aimed at trying to figure out ways in which to love God enough that we are able to be certain of feeling God’s love in return. We join together in regulated mitzvot because of the wisdom that our generations of ancestors have developed and proved to be effective in that search.

With love, as Rumi teaches us, we can overcome hesitation and begin to dare. The more we love, whether it be God or those people around us, the more we know the importance of fighting for a better world for our beloved. With the combination of the definitive aspects of Jewish law and our creativity in making it relevant now, we can help our world come closer to constant love of not only God, but one another, as well.

Today, I want to challenge you to identify one mitzvah that you’ve already taken on - coming to this synagogue, feeding the homeless, lighting Shabbat candles. How has that mitzvah generated love in your life, and is there a way to sink deeper into that aspect of love? Introduce some physical beauty into the space in which you practice or add some sort of statement of gratitude within that practice! And here’s a bonus challenge - identify one mitzvah you don’t tend to practice regularly but that you’ve admired from a distance, and do it because of your love for God, the world, your children, whoever really needs your love right now. Use your love of others as a training ground for loving outside of your inner circle, and use your love of God as a training ground for loving those humans you spend each day with. This practice of love must be employed with everything you’ve got - b’khol levav’kha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol m’odekha, and the good news is, lo bashamayim hi - it’s not in heaven to reach.