In a year defined by its compound anxieties — medical, racial, political, and economic — we are in the most anxious month on the Jewish calendar. Lacking much of an independent identity, Elul is the final stretch of the religious year and a prelude to the impending Days of Awe. Traditionally, it is a time of increased religious vigilance, including heightened introspection, penitential prayers, revisiting personal and communal moral standards, and stricter observance, all in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But there’s more to Elul, even in a year like this one, than brooding over the prior year’s shortcomings or worrying about the weeks and months ahead. For the sensitive religious soul, this season can also be a time of deep spiritual yearning and an intensified love for the divine. A memorable epigram, citing the Song of Songs (6:3), literally spells this out: “‘I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me’ — as an acronym, this spells ‘Elul.’”
Love and fear often come in tandem. And in Jewish thought, love of God and fear of God are considered opposite but conjoined poles of a unified response to divinity: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love him . . . “ (Deuteronomy 10:12).
The traditional Siddur for children begins (right after Modeh Ani) with a declaration — “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10) — that places the latter at the epicenter of intellectual achievement. And the second verse of Shema, a prayer which is almost a credo of Jewish faith, is the commandment to love God.
While both mitzvot seem somewhat amorphous, fear of God may be the easier of the two to grasp and to implement. But how can the Torah mandate loving God? What does it mean in practice?
In the very first chapters of his Mishneh Torah code, Maimonides lists love and fear of God as distinct but tightly coupled commandments. Characteristically, he intellectualizes the effort required to attain both. Maimonides states that love and fear of the divine, properly fulfilled, arises from an appreciation of God’s majesty and man’s humility, which can only be accomplished with training in physics and metaphysics: “One can only love God by the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge, will be the love . . . a person ought therefore to devote himself to understanding those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:6). Such learning, Maimonides assures us, will ultimately result in an obsessive love for God (in an unexpected poetic flourish, he compares this love to romantic infatuation) and to a concomitant feeling of smallness within the vastness of the physical and metaphysical universe. This sense of humility is what the Torah means by fearing God.
Note that the type of fear that God demands, for Maimonides, is not the fear of punishment (in fact, he rejected the concept of physical suffering in the afterlife as divine retribution). He has little patience for those who worship exclusively out of fear, as commonly understood, or anticipation of reward. Rather, he says, one who worships God as intended, out of love, “does what is true because it is true” (ibid., 10:2).
As always, Maimonides sets the bar high. He seems, to be honest, to have defined these mitzvot much too narrowly. Even assuming there is a specific formula for their observance, his intellectual and religious vision for fulfilling them is likely out of the reach of most people. On this and many other matters, both philosophical and halakhic, he had many detractors. It also goes without saying that Maimonidean (unsurprisingly, largely Aristotelian) physics, as summarized in the earliest chapters of Mishneh Torah, is hopelessly out of date.
But the idea that loving God must begin, both logically and practically, with a love for the truth, is a timeless one that should be at the foundation of our spiritual lives. In pledging their loyalty and love to God, religious people should never be asked to forsake science and fact. And while the beginning of wisdom may be the fear of God, human wisdom itself, both secular and divine, is only possible with an irrevocable commitment to the truth.