Between the Lines—Va'ethannan

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

בכל לבבך, בשני יצריך ביצר טוב וביצר רע, דבר אחר בכל לבבך בכל לב בך, שלא יהיה לבך חלוק על המקום.

שמעון בן עזיי אומר בכל נפשך, אהבהו עד מצוי נפש. רבי אליעזר אומר אם נאמר בכל נפשך למה נאמר בכל מאדך ואם נאמר בכל מאדך למה נאמר בכל נפשך, יש לך אדם שגופו חביב עליו מממונו לכך נאמר בכל נפשך ויש לך אדם שממונו חביב עליו מגופו לכך נאמר בכל מאודך.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)

"With all your heart"—With both your Inclinations: the Inclination to good and the Inclination to evil. Another interpretation: "With all your heart"—with all the heart that is within you; your heart should not be divided with the Everpresent One.

"And with all your soul" . . . Simeon ben Azzai says: With all your soul you shall love Him until the last drop of life is wrung out of you. R. Eliezer says: Having said "with all your soul," why does Scripture go on to say "with all your might?" And it says "with all your might," why does it say "with all your soul?" There is one type of person whose body is more precious to them than their wealth, and "with all your soul" is directed to them. There is another type of person whose wealth is more precious to them than their bodies, and "with all your might" is directed to them.

Due to some calculated procrastination, I recently completed my 2009 federal tax returns. This event took place just after I marked the first anniversary of my current position with The Jewish Theological Seminary. In reviewing all of my personal financial records, I found myself both pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed for the same reason: I donated significantly more to charitable causes than in previous years (since I now have a regular paycheck), yet I failed to meet our tradition's standard—and my own—for giving at least ten percent of my income to tzedakah. According to these figures, have I become a less God-loving person?

In reading this week's Torah portion, we have the opportunity to gain deeper understanding of the verse that is the focus of the midrash above. We are obligated to recall (at least) twice daily the commandment to love God as we recite the Shema', the most fundamental prayer in Judaism. The passage quoted from Sifre offers insight into the challenge of putting our prayers into practice, as this ancient commentary reminds us that we experience a natural tension between our highest aspirations and our basest desires.

In fact, another midrash explains that our "Inclination to evil" (Yetzer ha-ra), actually is an indispensable part of ourselves. Genesis Rabbah 9:6 states that "were it not for the yetzer ha-ra, a person would never build a house, get married, have children or engage in business." This inclination is responsible for our pursuit of prosperity and progeny; the first statement in the passage from Sifre charges us with harnessing our appetites for sex and material wealth in service of the greater good.

After considering my relative frugality in 2009, I decided to honor both "Inclinations" in putting my body and my bank account to work for God in new ways. I bought my first road bike to begin training for a Jewish environmental bike ride that raises funds for organizations working to make our world a greener and more peaceful place. Let all of us newly engage our personal resources in these last remaining weeks of 5770 for a better tomorrow.