I recently hearkened back to a college class on world religions, where I was explaining my understanding of some concept in Judaism. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember a fellow student asking me if what I was explaining was Jewish dogma. I replied that there wasn’t such a thing as dogma in Judaism, but we do have these things called commandments.
Moses Mendelsohn suggests that the only real dogma in Judaism is that we don’t have any dogma, and Solomon Schechter points out that there is no commandment to actually believe in God (although we can allow the first of the ten commandments to lead us there). It’s not until the twelfth century that Maimonides presents us with a belief system. What we find in the Torah are mitzvot (commandments) — things to do, not things to believe.
There are many different kinds of mitzvot in many different categories. Some we can’t even perform today because they are only to be carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some are specific to the Land of Israel, some are specific to the priestly tribe (kohahim and levi’im), and others are gender specific.
There is one commandment which is easy to understand and at the same time perplexing — the commandment to love. Other mitzvot have to do with either performing or refraining from doing something. Love, however, is a strong and complicated emotion. When — and why — is it a mitzvah?
There are three places in the Torah where we are commanded to love (they are repeated elsewhere, but this is where they first appear)::
- You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love (v’ahavata) your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18)
- The foreigner who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love (v’ahavata) him as yourself; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
- And you shall love (v’ahavata) the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
We are not commanded to love our parents or love our children. We are commanded to love our neighbor, to love the foreigner, and to love God.
What’s the connection?
When the Hebrew letter vav is in front of a word, it can mean a couple of different things. In biblical Hebrew, a vav in front of a word is known as a vav hahipuch — the letter changes the tense of a verb to its opposite — from past to future or from future to past. In modern Hebrew, a vav in front of a word means “and.”
I’m going to take some license, and suggest that we might think of the vav as the connector between these three commandments to love — and to look at the vav, not only as the a vav hahipuch (the biblical vav that changes the tense of the verb), but also the vav in modern Hebrew, the word “and.”
And you should love your neighbor, and you should love the foreigner, and you should love God.
It’s interesting that love of God doesn’t appear until the end of the Torah — well after the first two commandments to love are mentioned. Perhaps it means that loving God simply doesn’t mean observing all of the other commandments which require us to either do something or not do something. Love of God, first and foremost, means that we respect each other, that we love one another. We are parochial and we are universal. Only sixteen verses separate love of our fellow Jews and love of the stranger. And only until we fulfill these two mitzvot, can we truly fulfill the third.
I don’t want to sound christological or give the false impression that John Lennon was right — that “all you need is love,” but the messages on immigration and refugees are strong and obvious. To love God means to love ourselves. To love ourselves, we must also love those who are not us. It’s not always easy, but being Jewish isn’t always easy.
In numerology, the vav has a value of six. If we take these three commandments to love, with a vav preceding each one and add them together, we get 18, the numerical equivalent of chai — the Hebrew word for life.
The path to a fulfilling life, a fulfilling Jewish life, includes loving ourselves and our neighbors. It also involves loving those who are different, and ultimately, and only then, loving God.