1. “I am the Hashem your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt….” (5:6)
2. “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, the Hashem is One.” (6:4)
3. “You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” (6:5)
A mitzva needs a verb to tell us what to do or what to avoid doing. Here, though, we have three commandments, right at the top of Maimonides’ hit parade, where the instructions are ambiguous or obscure. The first is the commandment to believe in G-d; the opening of the Ten Commandments. But it is worded with Hashem as the speaker, identifying Himself as the Divine, not as a “thou shalt” or as a “thou shalt not.” It is interpreted by our sages to be the blanket acceptance of the existence of G-d. #2, the Shema, does have a verb, “hear,” but what we are supposed to hear (or accept) builds on the previous example. Having accepted the existence of an omnipotent Creator, we pay attention to the dual statement that Hashem is our G-d, and is singular. Then we move onto example #3, the opening verse of the V’ahavta. The ancient conundrum is: how can anyone be commanded to love anyone else, especially if they must do so with all their heart, soul, and might? Should I love G-d the way I love my wife, daughter, and family, or the way I love meatball subs? Or something totally different?
If these commandments are supposed to be uppermost in our thoughts, omnipresent in our lives, and directing our actions at all times, shouldn’t they be a little more specific? Virtually all of Jewish practice is based on ritual; either performing the commandments as they are reflected in modern Halacha (rabbinical law) or avoiding the things which are forbidden. Judaism can be visualized as a series of practical steps which lead to a spiritual end; following tradition and practice increases our chances of imbuing our lives with meaning, motivation, knowledge, and closeness to the Divine. Here, however, we have three unique mitzvot which represent the closest thing that Judaism has to dogma. In a faith which is rooted in things to do, here are things we must believe, or practice without knowing how.
The reason why is as simple as it is unexplainable. It is impossible for us all to picture or relate to Hashem in exactly the same way. This is alluded to in the conclusion of the Shema: “Hashem is One.” Many interpretations of this phrase exist (come to shul this Shabbos…) but I see this iconic verse as teaching that while G-d belongs to all of us, our individual relationships with the Divine are singularly unique. That makes it easier to understand how we are supposed to love Hashem our G-d. It’s an individual, evolving process. The steps which follow in the V’ahavta paragraph juxtapose physical actions with the spiritual imperative which preceded them, giving us ways to personalize the experience.
Or is it the other way around? Perhaps there is a symbiotic relationship between the spiritual and the physical—one informing the other. Simple actions which we can perform or avoid may bring an emotional or theological reward, but giving them individual context, by forging a uniquely personal relationship with Hashem in advance, allows us to approach faith and practice from multiple entry points at once. These three 24/7 commandments may be the most dogmatic and difficult to perform, but they can bring on special meaning when we realize that how we understand the existence of G-d, how we relate to the Divine, and how we love Hashem are all highly individual, dynamic, and deeply personal factors. The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that Judaism is monolithic, static, or fully formed. These confusing but vital mitzvot teach us that we can, and should, build a personal relationship with G-d, allowing our concept of the Divine to evolve, and letting it encourage us to reflect what we believe in what we do.
With all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen