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

Rabbi Akiva taught Torah, even though Rome outlawed the practice. Proliferating our Jewish tradition cost people their lives, and Rome was all too happy to execute anyone who broke this law. On Yom Kippur, during the normative afternoon service, some synagogues spend extensive amounts of time recalling the tragedy that befell great sages of the period; they faced execution for teaching Judaism. Oddly, the lists of the ten who we remember are not uniform in every High Holy Day service. We must acknowledge that the list (whichever) stands as a symbol for hosts of people killed for being devout in their faith. Rabbi Akiva’s story stands out, though.

Having been arrested and sentenced to death, Roman soldiers brought him to the village square and began raking the flesh off of his back with iron combs. As life began to leave him, the sunset, and it was time for reciting the evening prayers. With barely a breath, he began reciting the words found in this week’s Torah portion, “Hear O’ Israel, Adonai is our God. Adonai is One.”

His students interrupted him crying and decrying, “Saying these words cost you your life! How can you, even now, recite them?” He responded, “All my life, I have said these words and those that follow, ‘love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.’ With what little life I have, for the first time, I understand what it means to love God with everything left in me. God didn’t do this to me; people did. My faith is that someday, this horror will not happen again.” With that, he finished the prayer, and as he uttered the final words, the last breath of life left him, and he passed from this world.

Love is tough. Love, though, is not a part-time thing or something that we do. Love takes focus, work, commitment, and faith. Love is – or is not. When I counsel with couples, I tell them that love is not a 50-50 arrangement. Love is 100-100. We are all in, or we are not.

Of course, love is active and not passive. One cannot love and do nothing. Love requires action. So, to read the text, “You must love God with all of your heart, your soul, and your might,” one has to demonstrate that these words hold value in one’s heart, one’s soul, and in the way, one expends his/her energy. The only ways in which we can demonstrate this love is to honor and care for all that God creates. One cannot profess to love another if one dishonors what the other does, creates, sustains, and loves. Our sages teach that one cannot claim to love God and mistreat other humans, animals, or the earth.

Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” As written in the mid-1960s by American singer-songwriter Chet Powers (stage name Dino Valenti) of the Youngbloods, “Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” Shabbat Shalom.