Shabbat Shalom-With a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Va-et’chanan

The Greeks developed four different understandings/concepts of love. They range from the erotic to the simplicity of human dignity. Modern day psychologists argue that whichever the “version” of love one experiences, there exists three basic components. One can determine the extent to which one loves based on how one defines their level of connection on these three criteria: passion, intimacy, and commitment. If we think about how we use the word love to describe our relationship with people or our affinity with things, we might become concerned as to how we throw the word out, and how people hear it in turn. In Greek, there are four words for love; in English, there is only one. Perhaps this is a reason we stay confused as a society.

I love my wife absolutely. I love our children absolutely. I love Torah and my job, absolutely. I also love the Green Bay Packers, absolutely. I really would hate to think that the word “love” meant the same level of intimacy, passion, and commitment in each sentence. In our society, we use the word “love” a lot. In interpersonal relationships, we often intend the term one way, but get confused in how we apply it.


Not every couple who loves each other erotically (Eros) should be married, nor is everybody who is intimate lifetime partners or best friends (Storge), necessarily erotic for each other. We have a moral obligation to respect and protect each other’s dignity (Agape), whether we have any other relationship with them. We form communities with people who hold the same values as do we (Philia love), but the strength and vibrancy of that community is not dependent on its members all being best friends (or friends at all). 


In as much as we use the one word for all of these levels of relationship, it is no wonder that we confuse them and enter into relationships with sometimes unreal expectations of our partner. It is also no surprise that so much pain results when all we wanted to do was express love.


Psychology lesson aside, we come to this week’s Torah text. We receive the admonition to remember that one source of divinity must be responsible for creation, and that we must, “Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your being.” As a quasi-historian, I get stuck on this phrase and how it has manifested in our “religious zeal and commitments” throughout time. People have understood this “love” to occur at every level that the Greek definitions offer; and this “love” has yielded some really bizarre results. 


Loving God erotically spawned the mythologies of love gods and goddesses and prostitute cults on the one hand and commitments to celibacy (saving it for God) on the other. Is God our best friend or parental creator; the dispassionate overseer or monarch, the temperamental and jealous child, or the conscience that reminds us of our moral choices? Religious traditions have argued all of these, and most religious systems portray God across a variety of these roles … at the same time. So we are obligated to love God with every fiber of our being. On a literal level, it would absolutely mandate that we experience all four types of love in religion, and at the highest levels of the psychologist’s standards. That people take these as absolutes explains religious fundamentalism and also why so many others walk completely away from religion.


As a Rabbi, I wrestle with the language of scripture and strive to always remember that the book’s intended purpose was to help us make life more relevant and more meaningful. I refuse to believe that our human emotions and language are God’s limitations, and I absolutely believe that scriptural stories are human. The biblical God is a product of our own lore; our best efforts and our own limitations. I also believe that the authors/editors understood this reality – even while many readers since have not.

We have given God a name, Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay. These four letters are, according to tradition, unpronounceable. Some try “Yahweh,” while convention would replace the letters with the word, “Adonai (my Lord).” The four letters are a form of the verb, “to be.” To quote Rabbi David Cooper, “God is a verb.” 


I do not know how or that we relate directly to the Source of creation. It is not for me to tell God how to do God’s job. I do read the Torah as a sourcebook for our own behavior. Love God with all heart, soul, and being is a commitment to celebrate and love … being. This is a command to love every moment and every opportunity that we can love … in every way in which we can love it … with everything that we have. The more we can love being, the more we can love being with each other. 

Certainly the news around the world tells us that we are not doing a good job interpersonally, but there is life beyond the news. There are families and friends who do amazing work for each other; committed to each other simply because we love.


Whatever our challenges (and I cannot imagine the world that many have to cope with each day), I know that whatever blessings we do enjoy come from our intentions to own them. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” I love that we can love, and I pray we do a lot more of it. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Marc A. Kline