This week’s portion is quite well known. Many of the portion’s verses find their way into so many prayer books, private prayers etc. Just look at the beginning of the portion (4:44) and the v’zot ha’Torah which we sing as we raise the Torah scrolls at a Torah service. We are greeted by the third repetition of the Ten Commandments (Chapter 5) and are supported by what may be the most famous part of this portion, the Sh’ma and V’ahavta in Chapter 6 (4 ff). So many texts in this portion speak to so many of us in so many ways.
I was thinking of the V’ahavta in reading this portion. It speaks to us of love, the love of God, and it is not unusual, at this stage of life, to begin to think more about what this prayer says. Once you step away from the concept of Divine Revelation, the question is always asked about what it means to “love” God. This question is even more relevant now as so many of our generation move away from a pediatric concept of God to a more naturalist, or non-supernatural belief system. How do we, or can we “love”?
In tradition, we are commanded to love via our adherence to the Commandments. The “mitzvah” system of life was developed to provide a pathway to righteousness and, if things did not work out in this life, well, we created the afterlife. But what about how we can see this system in our context, especially as the vast majority of Jews do not strictly follow the system of mitzvot that was “revealed” at Sinai? The paths of observance do seem to meet in the value of chesed. This is sometimes translated as deeds of kindness. We also know it as how Rabbi Hillel taught it, in that treat others as you wish to be treated. I think this message is even more meaningful now as we get older and reflect on life and as we look at the world in which we live. What would life be like if it was based on the value of chesed? In truth, all aspects or strands of Judaism see this value as central, no matter what theological foundation is used. The genius of Judaism is, in many ways, the foundation of a system of behavior that, when followed, allows for the ability of a society to function as a unified whole. It is a synergy of the diverse elements.
How we live is how we will be judged. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks alluded to this in an essay he wrote on this portion. “Morality”, he wrote, “is not just a set of rules, even a code as elaborate as the 613 commandments and their rabbinic extensions. It is also about the way we respond to people as individuals.” (Essays on Ethics”. P.284)
Once again Torah can remind us that we exist with people, in community. Not everyone may or will agree with everyone else, but, how we “respond” to them will determine the type of society we create. It seems we still have some way to go.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.