The whole world sings and dreams about being in love. But do we even know what "love" means?
Love is the emotional pleasure of perceiving another's virtues. As Maimonides writes: A person can only love according to the degree he knows the object of his love. If he knows a little, he can love a little. And if he knows a lot, he can love a lot. (Laws of Teshuva 10:6)
It is a constant mitzvah to "love God." In one respect this is easy – since everything about God is virtuous. Yet the challenge is that it all depends on the degree to which we "know" Him.
The Torah delineates three primary paths to develop love of God: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions" (Deut. 6:5).
What is loving God "with all your heart?" When your deepest desire is to fulfill His will. For example, consider someone who has a meaningful career that requires him to work on Shabbat. Love of God means that if your career does not align with what God wants, then you're resigned to give it up. Not because you agree to suffer, but because it's no longer your desire. You've reached the level where your will, and the will of God, become one.
What is loving God "with all your soul?" That's using all your energy and talents to serve God. Even if it involves pain or humiliation. And even if it means going so far as to give up your life.
Loving God "with all your possessions" means using all your material resources in the service of God. This includes spending money on mitzvot, giving charity, and passing up business opportunities that involve transgressing a mitzvah.
Let's examine specific tools to develop love of God in each of these areas.
Method #1: Nature
When someone gives you a gift, the natural response is to love the source of that gift.
The world of nature – with all its phenomenal genius, beauty and symmetry – is a gift from God.
What is the path to love (and awe) of God? When one ponders God's great and wonderful acts of creation, and sees in them a genius that has no comparison, then automatically a person will love, praise, glorify – and deeply desire to know the greatness of God. (Foundations of Torah 2:2)
The wonders of creation are endless. Birds, flowers, canyons, babies. The balance of the ecosystem, the intricacy of the human body. It's all a marvel. And as science makes more discoveries, deeper layers continuously emerge.
One of the first questions asked when getting to heaven is: "Did you taste all of God's fruits?"
The Talmud says that one of the first questions we're asked when getting to heaven is: "Did you taste all of God's fruits?" The beauty of fruit is that it not only sustains us nutritionally, but includes many fringe benefits like taste, texture, color, and form. We will be asked, "Did you taste all the fruits?" – in other words, did you appreciate God's gifts in this world?
How do we appreciate the value of God's gift? By focusing on the fact that what we lack is nothing in comparison to what we already have. Consider your eyes, for example. You couldn't buy an eye for a million dollars. Yet God gave you a pair of eyes that work more accurately and efficiently than the most sophisticated computerized digital vision devices. And they're free!
Ponder creation, then plug it back into the Source. This brings you to loving God "with all your possessions."
How so? Imagine someone gave you a car as a gift, and then asked to borrow it. It would be your pleasure to let him use it.
So if God asks you to re-dispense 10 percent of your income to charity, or put a mezuzah on your door, how can you object?
Method #2: History
True love of God goes further. Just because someone gave you a car doesn't mean you'll commit your life to helping him.
To increase love of God, study your own history. Consider how God gives you every bit of strength and ability. He keeps you breathing and your organs functioning. He helps you get a job, find a spouse, and build a home. And He gives you life itself.
God is our individual, personal God. That's why the verse says to love him "with all your heart... all your soul... all your possessions."
Sometimes you encounter problems? It's not that you've managed to fight and survive despite everything. On the contrary, God has shown you the right path and allowed you to grow. He arranges events according to your special circumstances, to teach you and guide you at every stage and moment.
Intuition tells us there is intrinsic meaning in the world. Otherwise, why bother getting out of bed?
Nothing is by chance. God is testing us and sending us constant messages. It's not punishment. He just wants to wake us up. Just as He'll shower us with gifts, He'll also send a signal if we're drifting. God says, "Do you really want meaning in life? Do you want to become fulfilled? Perhaps you're going about it the wrong way. It's Me, God. Pay attention!"
God's involvement works on a national level as well. If you are part of the eternal Jewish chain, realize how God has gone out of His way to bring that precious heritage down to you. Study world history to see how God has ensured the survival of the Jewish people despite impossible odds.
If someone has proven he'll go to great efforts for you – even to the point of saving your life – then your level of gratitude will be commensurate. God has done that and more. So it's our pleasure to expend great effort for God – to devote our time, abilities, and if need be, our very life.
That's loving God "with all your soul."
Method #3: Torah
Yet even this awareness won't necessarily lead you to change your innermost desires.
What would motivate you to change? The realization that your deepest desire is to connect with God.
Torah study is the way to discover this path of meaning. Torat Chaim – literally the book of "Instructions for Living" – is God's communication to the world. It's the ultimate repository for wisdom on how to succeed at marriage, parenting, community building, and fixing the world.
Just as the laws of physics are vast and complex, so too metaphysical truths are complex. It takes a lot of painstaking effort to understand. But once you work it through and gain clarity, you'll be awestricken. Everything fits together and you begin to see the perfection, consistency and harmony of the system.
Torah is the mind of God, the ultimate repository for wisdom.
That's because Torah is the mind of God.
What happens if you study Torah and don't feel anything? Then you haven't studied properly.
The sign of successful Torah study is when it becomes an insatiable addiction. If something doesn't make sense, you will rack your brains to figure it out. And every time you succeed in working it out, the pleasure makes you want more and more. This level is called Ahavat Torah – true love of Torah. You become so overwhelmed that Torah study becomes your very essence and you want to absorb as much as you can.
Torah study ingrains in us the idea that God is the infinite source of all wisdom and defines the ultimate in "meaning." Therefore personal goals and desires cannot compare, and you'll drop anything which is not consistent with the will of God.
That's loving God "with all your heart."
When we look out over the Grand Canyon, we are awed. When we see a meadow blanketed in freshly fallen snow, we sense tranquility. When lighting illuminates a star-studded sky, we are exhilarated. And when a baby is born, we perceive purity and perfection.
It stands to reason that the better someone understands nature, the more he should love God. Yet if this process is so simple, why are so many scientists – who best understand the perfection of nature – not coming close to God? Shouldn't it be automatic?
A man visited the Louvre, the famous art gallery in Paris. After looking around for a while, he said "I can't understand why everyone makes such a big deal about this place. Every painting here looks like yogurt."
Finally someone finally tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Hey mister, wipe the yogurt off your glasses!"
Loving God is a matter of focus. Two people can witness an identical scene, yet walk away with vastly different impressions. Why? They focused on different details based on their existing attitudes and expectations.
Whenever your brain absorbs new information, it enters a filing system which forms your basic outlook on life. You automatically translate everything you see and hear in relation to that preexisting system.
The one prerequisite to attain love of God is to be open-minded. Don't decide what truth is going to look like in advance. Remove the blocks that prevent you from viewing the world with honesty and openness. You have to really want to know, without any biases: "What is nature telling me?"
Consider the evolutionist, who's already certain that nature created itself and sustains itself. As he discovers more and more complexities in nature, his commitment to that basic attitude is strengthened. "Amazing!" he says. "If the nuclear force were only a few percent weaker, then a proton could not combine with a neutron and the sun would merely be a cold ball of gas. So of course life must have evolved!"
He appreciates nature, but as an end unto itself.
Judaism says that God is hidden within nature. It is through the beauty of nature that we discover God. Just as every stroke of Picasso's brush bears his signature, so too everything in this world has God's signature. Indeed, many scientists believe in God precisely because the perfection of nature gives evidence to that position. As Einstein once said, "I want to know how God created the universe. The rest is details."
If God's creations can have such an impact, how much more does a direct experience with the Creator Himself.
King David said: "The eyes of all human beings look to You, God, and You give them food in its proper time" (Psalms 145:15).
How can King David make such a statement? Most people seem to be running around, working and shopping. Where are all the people "lifting their eyes to Heaven" and thanking God for providing sustenance "in its proper time"?!
David is aware of man's internal reality. Consider the psychological games people play with themselves, the issues they avoid, the way they keep busy and work hard in order not to have to think about God. There's something they all know. They're just hiding from it.
Even the atheist. Deep down, in his heart of hearts, in his innermost consciousness, every human being wants meaning. In Mesilat Yesharim ("Path of the Just"), Rabbi Luzzatto says that man was created only to enjoy the eternal pleasure of closeness to God. Everyone wants to be close to God. "It's difficult. I'm avoiding it. But it's a fact that I can't get away from."
Why are so many people never at peace, never happy and never satisfied? Because our true inner yearning is for the Infinite. We're searching for that which can never be quenched by anything physical. Each one of us is a vessel, capable of appreciating the Infinite and getting infinite pleasure from it. Anything short of infinity leaves you dissatisfied.
That's why the Torah can command us in the emotion of love. The verse says to put the love of God "on your heart" (Deut. 6:6). The love is already there, we just need to tap into it.
A private conversation with the King would be the ultimate experience.
Imagine someone traveling all over the world seeking exciting experiences. Now tell him that in the next room "you can sit down and speak to God Almighty Himself for an entire hour."
A private conversation with the King. Wouldn't that be the ultimate experience?
"Remove the yogurt from your glasses." See the yearning in your life. Recognize the emptiness. There is nothing in the physical and emotional spheres that can satisfy us totally. Because we're open to so much more.
So get a taste of that pleasure. You were not created to suffer in this world in order to win a prize in the World to Come. If you use your eyes and brain, you can have the pleasure of closeness today. Every time you tune into truth – into the greatness of God. Everything else is nothingness. No contest.
A key to loving God is to give up the illusion that you alone are responsible for your achievements. It is recognizing instead that everything you have is a gift from God.
Why is gratitude such a difficult awareness to sustain? Because the human ego craves independence. It balks at the concept of indebtedness to a Higher Power. We prefer to believe that we've done it ourselves!
Recognizing the hand of God comes with fearful consequences. If there's really a Creator and a purpose to life, then we're not entirely free to do as we please. Someone else is calling the shots.
Ironically, people will climb a mountain for the ultimate transcendental pleasure. Yet they'll shy away from God because they're afraid it will stifle them.
In truth, the seemingly "restricted" life that people fear, is really a life of incredible happiness. With awareness of God, you know where you're going. You understand yourself. You are focused and eliminate confusion.
The best way to attain this clarity is to ask continuously: "What am I living for? What do I want out of life?"
Realize that God is all "good." There's nothing to hide from. There's no reason to close your eyes or your heart. Because all He wants to do is give you everything you've ever wanted.
Next to love of God, all other pleasures are insignificant. We can have delicious pizza, lots of money, love and power. But humans long to transcend the mundane reality of daily living. That's why mystery, magic and miracles capture our imaginations. They impel us to break beyond our own limitations and merging our (relatively speaking) tiny, insignificant selves with the greater infinite unity.
Don't shortchange yourself. Don't hold on to the cheap stuff. The trivialities that you give up are nothing compared to the endless collection of pleasure you can gain.
Outer Acts, Inner Feelings
How does a person measure love of God?
When you love someone, you get tremendous pleasure in doing things for them – even difficult things. Therefore, your degree of pleasure in doing things for God, indicates how much "love of God" you have achieved.
It works in the other direction as well. By performing an act for the sake of God, you can engender the very emotion of love you are trying to acquire.
Judaism has a principle called chitzonit mi'orrer pinimiut – "the external awakens the internal." It is possible to develop an emotion just by acting as if you are already in that emotional state. For example, studies show that when someone activates particular muscles by smiling, there is a corresponding elevation in mood.
How does this apply in spiritual terms? Let's say a person wants to become more charitable. Is it better to give $1 of charity to 100 people, or to give one person $100?
If you give charity 100 times, the repetition of the physical act breaks down your egocentricity and engrains the behavior of a more charitable person.
Any love is manifest as a bond. To love God means to feel connected to Him. The Torah gives us 613 mitzvot – 613 activities – each designed to build a connection with God. In fact, the word "mitzvah" is based on a root meaning "connection."
The Power of Mitzvot
The daily life of a Jew has built-in activities designed to awaken love of God. Maimonides highlights these examples:
- Tzitzit. A Jew embellishes a four-cornered garment with fringes, as the "uniform" of God's army. Just as a soldier is always responsible to uphold the standards of his unit, Tzitzit reminds the wearer of his duties to God. A soldier who puts himself on the line loves his country more intensely than a civilian. So too, awareness of God's rulership breeds love and loyalty.
- Brit Milah. Circumcision, the sign of eternal covenant with God, has been practiced on Jewish males for close to 4,000 years, ever since Abraham was so commanded.
- Birkat Hamazon. We recite "Grace After Meals" to focus on God's many gifts – not only our physical nourishment, but also our corresponding spiritual needs.
- Writing a Torah Scroll. This mitzvah enhances our awareness of the importance of Torah, and engenders great love for the Author of these precious "life instructions."
- Tefillin and Mezuzah. These parchments describe the Exodus from Egypt, developing our awareness that God constantly releases us from "slavery," by guiding, teaching, and arranging events in our lives.
- Reciting the "Shema." We articulate that God is one, that He is a personal God who cares about each one of us, and that He does everything solely for our benefit.
- Prayer. The purpose of prayer is to remind us that God is the constant, infinite source of all life.
- Birkat Kohanim. The Priestly Blessing, delivered through the Kohanim, teaches that God loves us and wants to bless us with everything good.
Sharing God With Others
One powerful manifestation of love of God is the desire to share it. When you love God and you see other people getting caught up in all sorts of trivialities, it hurts. They're missing out on a great human experience. So when you love God, you want everyone else to share it as well.
One's desire to share God with others is an accurate gauge of their own love of God. It's natural to share with others what you love the most, as in the proud grandmother eagerly showing pictures of her grandchildren.
Abraham became the first Jew, not because he was the first to connect with God, but because he was the first to go out and share it with others. He pitched his tent right in the middle of an inter-city highway, in order to engage others in discussion. And when the idea God became unpopular, Abraham stood up to all types of mockery and persecutions, even being thrown into a fiery furnace.
Abraham became the first Jew because he went out to share God with others.
Unlike people who become jealous when the attention of their beloved is directed elsewhere, when it comes to God, we actually desire others to have a relationship with Him. That's because God is infinite. He can be shared without anyone losing out.
And the desire to share love of God goes even further. If there's a general lack of God-consciousness in the world, then your own relationship with God is lacking as well. God is the glue which binds humanity together, and effective leadership demands full consent of the people.
That's why reaching out is such an important part of one's overall service of God.
No Room For Other Pursuits
What constitutes a violation of the mitzvah to love God?
Loving something else that competes with your craving for being close to God.
The mitzvah to love God is to be constantly preoccupied with the pursuit of closeness to God. Maimonides compares this to the intense yearnings that a man feels for a woman. We should be so totally involved with the desire for God that there's no room for anything else.
The choice is ours. For as the Kotzker Rebbe once said: "Where is God? Wherever you let Him in."
Fortunately, we've got a good head start. Because God's love for us is unceasing, and feeling God's love causes us to love Him in return. As King Solomon says, "I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me" (Song of Songs 6:3). It's a two-way street, and God is always ready to be involved.
But don't wait for this dynamic to happen by itself. Pursue it intelligently. Be willing to invest time and effort to get this pleasure. It's a lifelong pursuit, and that why love of God is a constant mitzvah.
Life is a long series of events to becoming increasingly aware of the greatness of God. Focus on nature, Torah, history – and plug it all back into love of God. Without it, you're slipping out of Creation.