Love vs. Chaos
It is often said that Judaism emphasizes doing, not believing. Actions are what matter. This is only partially true. It has long been recognized that intention and emotion, while not sufficient for the practice of Judaism, are necessary to it.
The opening chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, particularly in last week’s parasha and this week’s, describe what can be called Judaism’s holy trinity: love and revere God; study God’s teachings; do them.
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)
Nahmanides, in commenting on these verses, emphasizes the connection between the beginning (what does God demand of you) and the end (for your good.): That which God demands of us is for our good. Building on the notion, expressed in psalms and elsewhere, that the very stars and planets pay honor to God, Nahmanides makes the point that human beings have a lower obligation. They do not have to honor God as the heavenly bodies do, but, rather, to love God. The implication here is that the Israelite nation is being given a specifically human task, and is not expected to do anything that a human cannot do. Nahmanides undertakes two related tasks: to encourage people that love of God is within their grasp and thus achievable; and to instill a sense of responsibility to love God by removing the excuse that it is not humanly possible.
A midrash on this subject links studying Torah with loving God: Studying Torah should not be done for self-promotion or any other ulterior reason but rather for the love of God. The midrash imagines the Torah saying a word of encouragement to the people: “All that you do is not chaos, but is from love.” (Sifri Ekev 41) The mention of chaos (tohu) is significant; the same word is found in the second verse of the Book of Genesis. It is the state of the pre-universe, the world of un-creation. This midrash sets chaos and love in opposition to each other. Perhaps one could extend the point by saying that love is the medicine that cures the illness of chaos. Loving God, as the foundation of learning and doing God’s teachings, leads to the mitigation of the forces of chaos.
Perhaps this midrash can also help solve, by way of example, exactly what it means to love God. If God is the Creator who brought the world out of chaos, then human beings will love God for having created them and for having created a world that, while it often seems chaotic, contains the potential to overcome chaos.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.