How can we be commanded to love? | Va’etchanan

As a lifelong football fan, I’ve spent the last week basking in the success of the England Lionesses. After more than forty years in the soccer wilderness, they are now the champions of Europe. Much of the credit goes to their coach, Sarina Wiegman, for the way that she prepared her players. It’s a difficult task, to find the right words to motivate your team before they take the field, knowing that you won’t be by their side on the pitch. In this week’s parasha, Moses finds himself in a similar situation. After forty years of wandering, the Children of Israel are about to cross the river Jordan and enter the Promised Land. Moses will not be joining them, and most of the book of Deuteronomy consists of his farewell address to the people before they depart.

What are the key points that Moses wishes to impress upon them? What must they know in order for their mission to be successful? He exhorts them to maintain the covenantal relationship they have with God. He calls upon them to follow all of God’s commandments, especially the Top Ten. And he enjoins them to remember how God brought their parents out of Egypt.

Since, apart from Moses, Joshua and Caleb, there is nobody left who has personally experienced the oppression of the Egyptians, and thus has a visceral understanding of the meaning of redemption, this new generation needs its own way to connect to God. All they know is life in the desert, and things will be very different on the far side of the river. Without Moses as an intermediary, how will the people be able to relate to their God? What will encourage them to follow Moses’ instructions?

Two modes of relationship have a long history within Judaism:  we should fear a God that can destroy a world (yirat shamayim) or love a God that has created one (ahavat haShem). But which works best? Did the Israelites really only accept the mitzvot at Mt. Sinai because God held the mountain over their heads and threatened to drop it if they didn’t say yes?[1] As Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson writes:

“While fear of God may be important as a secondary value, preventing the diminution of God into a rubber-stamp of our latest preferences or our most egregious shortcomings, there is a long precedent that gives priority to relating to God in love.”[2]

Fear certainly has the power to compel people to obey. But we obey only because we are afraid of the consequences, and the moment fear loosens its grip, our only thought is to escape and be free. However, when we love, our only wish is to draw near and feel that love.

And so, in chapter 6 Moses offers some succinct and practical instructions. First, he concentrates our identity into six words:  Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Pay attention. (Who?) Israel. (O, that’s us) Adonai is OUR God. (There is only) one Adonai! You might bump your head and forget everything, and with these six words you could recreate the foundation of our covenantal relationship. This teaching is followed by the V’Ahavta, And you shall love. How can we be commanded to love? Moses tells us to teach the Shema to our children, to discuss it wherever and whenever we are, and to place physical reminders of these words on our bodies and throughout our homes so that we may have aural, oral, visual and tactile experiences to integrate them within every part of our lives.

How may we be commanded to love? It is difficult to understand this when we are only at the beginning of a relationship. My beloved friend and teacher Rabbi Lionel Blue z”l used to tell me that to develop my relationship with God, I needed to put in as much time and effort as I would with any human I wanted to know. With the words of the V’Ahavta, Moses teaches the Israelites how to do this work.

As many of the Lionesses have said in myriad interviews since their victory, it is unbelievable that they won, but this is only the beginning. Their goal from the start has been to inspire, to show what can be achieved, especially to the newest generation. Their coach Sarina gave them various practice drills, designed to bring them to peak performance levels. We have Moses as our coach. Will we listen to him?


[1] Bavli Shabbat 88a

“And they took their places at the foot [or, on the undersideof the mountain (Exodus 19:17). Rav Avdimi the son of Hama the son of Hasa said, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed is God, lowered the [detached] mountain over them like a vat and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.’”

[2] “Should We Fear God or Love God – or Both?” Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson. Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University on the My Jewish Learning website.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).