"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907
"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907

This week’s Torah portion invites us to renew our vow to keep love alive

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Love is in the air on Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, a joyous minor holiday that in Second Temple times marked the start of the grape harvest. Marriageable young women donned white dresses and danced into the forest followed by eligible young men, which resulted in many shidduchim (love matches). The holiday has been rediscovered in present-day Israel, particularly as an occasion for romance, weddings, gift giving and paying homage to the art of love.

What more bashert (inevitable) connection could there be to this week’s parashah? In Va’etchanan we find Judaism’s most ubiquitous and heartfelt declaration of love and devotion, the Shema and Ve’ahavta: “Hear O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You shall love your God Adonai with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6)

Jewish children learn the Shema as their first prayer; Jews of all ages declare it multiple times a day in worship, before sleep and sometimes in moments of crisis—the Shema is often a Jew’s final utterance before dying. The proclamation affirming Divine Unity and the directive to teach our children and keep these words close at all times are the beating heart of Jewish faith and practice, bidding this “smallest of peoples” (Deut. 7:7) to be in a continually renewing, loving relationship with God.

Ahavah (love) is a recurring theme in the Book of Deuteronomy. In Biblical terms, ahavah connotes fidelity, faith, fear, reverence, adoration, reciprocity and service. But can love be commanded? Does “you shall love” compel or coerce, more than invite and welcome, the potential lover?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the great mystic and Torah teacher known as the Gerer Rebe, wondered: “How is it possible to command the love of God when it is dependent on an inner urge? Suppose such an urge is absent?  However, every person has the potential somewhere buried within, hence the commandment means to bolster the spirit so that the slumbering love of God may be uncovered.” (Itturei Torah, Vol. VI)

Jewish mystics believe that all people — indeed, all of God’s creations — have within them the spark of divinity. Everyone can show love for their Creator if, as the Gerer Rebe suggests, the soul can be buoyed sufficiently to encourage the life-sustaining bond between an individual and the traditions, rituals and Presence that have supported the Jewish people for millennia. How do we accomplish that?

The Sages gave enormous weight to the gauntlet of “you shall love.” Our massive Talmud (second-to-seventh centuries C.E.) opens with the early rabbis vigorously debating how to say the Shema, in what position of the body and with what disposition of heart it is to be uttered. The customs and choreography of our prayer services and of many rituals still widely practiced are evidence of the rabbis’ pedagogy — they knew that love of God and tradition can and should be expressed in many different ways, such as:

When reciting the Shema, we cover our eyes to create a private, intimate space for deep listening.

When pulling on the tallit (prayer shawl), we kiss the atarah (collar) and receive the ancestral and Divine embrace symbolized by the shawl.

We touch and kiss the Torah as it circuits the sanctuary.

When called to the Torah, we touch the scroll with the tzitzit (ritual fringes) of the tallit and then kiss the fringes.

We dedicate time for communal worship, charitable offerings and social connection in the hope that our gatherings and our loving sacrifices will help bring tikkun olam, repair of the world.

These examples, and so many more, reflect what is known in contemporary circles as The Five Love Languages: affirmations, quality time, receiving/giving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Each of us has a preferred way of indicating love and loyalty, and classical Jewish tradition, long before New Age psychology, identified and welcomed them all. Statements of faith, devotion of sacred time, gifts of precious resources, activities that foster healing and regular physical demonstrations of love align with the advice of present-day coaches and counselors as they guide people to lasting, loving relationships.

With innovation and creativity, our Sages took the challenge of “and you shall love” and gifted us with myriad opportunities and pathways to live that command, each and every day. They invite us to a daily renewal of vows to keep love alive so that we merit to be among those of whom Moses spoke (also in this parashah): “you, who hold fast to your God Adonai, are all alive today.” (Deut. 4:4)

By holding fast to Jewish life and learning, may we know the joy and fulfillment of true and lasting love. And may this Shabbat Nachamu, the first of seven Shabbats of Consolation, give us comfort that the light of Divine Love shines still within our hearts, and throughout all of creation.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].