Our parsha this week is Va’etchanan, a somewhat popular Torah portion, as it is the portion which houses our Shema and V’ahavta prayers.
The Shema, as we know, is a call to oneness, a call to love, and it stands as a centerpiece of this parsha.
Most of the parsha, however, is a retelling by Moshe of the commandments from God, covering everything from graven images to settling the land, and including a reworded Ten Commandments. It then gives us the Shema and V’ahavta.
The juxtaposition of the Shema against this lengthy record of rules is an interesting one. In a lofty meditation on loving and being at one with God, why start with a list of admonitions? Might one have something to do with the other?
By having the recitation of the mitzvot propped up against the Shema and V’ahavta, the Torah might be telling us something about how to love God.
You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
What does it mean to love? To love is to connect with, to respect, to revere, to devote time and energy to, to be compassionate toward, to make room for. Perhaps it is also to become one with, or to perceive the underlying unity between self and God, between self and the other.
The Torah might be telling us that mitzvot – commandments – are opportunities for connection. It might be telling us that the way we love God with all our hearts and all our souls is by connecting with Him. Connecting by doing mitzvot.
What happens when you do a mitzvah?
In the case of giving to the poor, you reach from your own reserves and replenish someone else’s.
In the case of observing Shabbat, you set aside time for yourself and for your loved ones and you do this for pure enjoyment; for rest, for the release of tension, for taking in the beauty you worked hard to create all week.
In the case of remembering that you were a slave in Egypt, you reflect on life as it was before you were so fat and happy, a time when life was arduous, when you had to strive and beg for what is now freely given to you.
In the case of refraining from murder, adultery, stealing, and lying, you keep yourself from acting spontaneously, giving into your anger, giving into your whims which in the long run will not serve you.
In the case of refraining from coveting, you are forced to acknowledge and be grateful for what that which is already yours.
I think observing mitzvot gets a lot of criticism both from within and without the Jewish community. And yes, it’s important to have a critical eye toward things that carry with them the weight that religious texts certainly do. But when you look at a mitzvah, it’s important to look not just at the act or behavior it is telling you to do or not to do, but to also look at the result of it.
Maybe we’ll never truly understand the reason we aren’t allowed to eat pork. But looking at the result of such a choice, we can see that we are not just being held back from eating something the rest of the world calls “the candy of the meat world;” we are also fostering in ourselves the ability to look past the satisfaction of the temporary.
When we find ourselves having to say no, we are also granted a moment – an opportunity – to remember our connection to something more enduring, something holy.
There is a small line in the middle of this parsha which often gets overlooked:
“B’chol haderech asher tziva Hashem eloheikhem etchem teileichu l’maan tichiyun v’tov lachem v’haarachtem yamim ba’aretz asher tirashun.”
“In all the ways which the Lord, your God, has commanded you, you shall go, in order that you may live and that it may be well with you, and so that you may prolong your days…”
We do mitzvot not merely to satisfy our God, not just because we are Jews, but for our own well being.
Loving God, loving each other
Today we are fortunate to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Will and Julia, and as we bless them both to have a life of happiness, I want to also bless them to have a life of mitzvot, not because I want them to be religious, not because it’s great when Jews do Jewish things, but because I want them to be well.
In the vein of giving tzedakah, may you reach into your own reserves to replenish one another’s.
In the fashion of observing Shabbat, may you make time for each other that is sacred, that is set aside; a time to enjoy all that you worked hard to create during the week.
As you refrain from letting anger control you enough to steal, lie, or murder, may you also refrain from giving into anger enough to let it damage your marriage.
And as for coveting… well, I think you get that one.
And may you do these things, in order that you may live, and that it may be well with you, and so that you may prolong your days.