Since its foundation, the Jewish tradition has struggled over what best inspires positive behavior and identification. Are people more likely to respond out of love or out of fear? On a daily basis, Jews struggle over this question when they recite the Shema, the first paragraph of which is found in this week’s parashah: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your being and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5) These familiar words clearly advocate for fulfilling God’s will out of love. Notwithstanding this message, the second paragraph of the Shema takes a seemingly contradictory tact: “And it shall be, if you indeed heed my commands with which I charge you today to love the Lord your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being, I will give you the rain of the land in its season… Watch yourselves lest you be seduced and you swerve and worship other gods… And the Lord’s wrath flare against you.” (Deut. 11:13-17) Here, the impetus for following the right path and avoiding the wrong one is based on reward and punishment, or more precisely on “fear of consequences.
In this dialectic, the sages clearly side with the advantages of a relationship built upon love, as illustrated in the following two midrashim from the period of the Mishnah: “Perform (God’s commandments) out of love. Scripture makes a distinction between one who performs out of love and one who performs out of fear… One who serves because he is afraid will only serve until the fear lapses. You, however, must perform out of love. Only in regard to God do we find love combined with fear and fear combined with love.
Another interpretation: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God: Make Him beloved to humanity, as did our father Abraham in the matter referred to in the verse, And the souls that they had ‘made’ in Haran (Gen. 12:5). But is it not true that if all the creatures in the world were to convene in order to create just one gnat and endow it with a soul, they would not be able to do so? Hence, we learn that Abraham converted people, thus bringing them under the wings of the Shekinah.” (adapted from Sifrei Devarim 32 Finkelstein ed. p. 54)
These two midrashim compliment each other. The first teaches us that love is truly inspirational. It creates a relationship that one wants to perpetuate. It inspires the kind of service which brings joy. The resultant “fear” is not fright but rather awe. In addition, this love is something that one wants to share with others and others want to be a part of. That is why Abraham and Sarah, as represented by the Sages, serve as a model of love of God. This is the Judaism that we must strive to create.