"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
The prayer known as V’ahavta ("And You Shall Love") expands on the themes of Shema Yisrael ("Hear O Israel”), and focuses on a commandment not only to love God with all our hearts, souls, and strength, essentially the whole essence of our being, but the second greatest commandment of all, to love our neighbor as ourselves. This concept is considered to be a central tenet and main essence of the Jewish faith: to love God and to love one another.
Included in both the morning and evening liturgies at synagogue services, the primary theme of the V’ahavta is derived from Deuteronomy 6:5–9, Numbers 15:40–41, and sometimes also Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–39, depending on the interpretation of different Jewish communities toward the topic. Yet, the twice-daily prayer to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves is a primary edifying spirit within the different sects of Judaism, even if that manifests differently outwardly from what may be recognized by Christianity. Interestingly, hearing, as in the case of Hearing O Israel, is often, for many people, the first step of faith (Romans 10:17).
The Shema fundamentally pronounces our faith that God is the King of the Universe, Lord of Lords, and King of Kings, the First Love and adoration of our lives, and He should be central to all things. The V’ahavta, however, builds on that concept as it is applied practically to the relationships in our lives. Pure and undefiled religion is not merely reducing our faith to eating vegan, paying tithe, observing the Shabbat, coming to church to say “Shabbat Shalom” to those around us, then retreating home with our own families, ignoring others in need, and putting immediate blood family on such a pedestal that we often ignore our brothers and sisters, our larger family in humanity and in Yeshua, in distress…or ignoring even those who are not in distress. May our outreach to and fellowship with others not only be when there is a problem or a need, but to share in the sweet joys of the Lord as well and seek ways to mature one another’s faith.
Rather, the V’ahavta, as an extrapolation of the Shema, is the commandment to help our brother, reinforcing that we are indeed our brother’s keeper and downplaying some of the themes and outward manifestations of rugged individualism that has pervaded American culture since the frontier days: to help those in need, to help those in distress, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the lonely, the widow, the orphan, whoever God puts in our lives to test our faith. While standards of holiness are to be expected, if rigid, inflexible rule-keeping and traditions, which will never earn our way into heaven on their own, are more important to us than loving God, observing those standards of holiness, and also loving fellow creation, then we have missed the whole point of the gospel. Some believers additionally connect the V’ahavta to Psalm 122, where believers indeed pray for Israel and the peace of Jerusalem, but expand that concept to praying not for Israel but praying with Israel, praying for an outpouring of love for all her people.
Yet even the Torah in its entirety instructs us in no uncertain terms to love God first and foremost, but by loving God, we by natural extension would be loving the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, and ultimately our neighbor, which, as we know, is each one of us with whom we encounter. What is godly love though? From a rabbinical perspective, love could be described in a more profound sense than infatuation, to love a post on Facebook, to love a particular food, or to love as we may describe relationships on earth (as the value of the word "love" has been cheapened in the modern world), but love rabbinically could be described more objectively: to extend acts of kindness, mercy, compassion, care, empathy, justice, morality, and righteousness to one another as God extended unto each of us, thus fulfilling the mitzvot of loving our neighbor with all our frail human heart, soul, strength, and might, and letting God do the rest as only He can do.
Maimonides wrote in some of his discourses that we are to love God when we feel fortunate as well as when we are deep in despair, echoing the sentiments of the Apostle Paul to be content whether in affluence or in poverty, whether well fed or hungry or living in plenty or in want (Philippians 4:12). Naturally, it is easier to love and be thankful to God when the good times are rolling, in times of prosperity and abundance, but what about in the personal valleys of our lives? How do we express that love? This is a challenge that many Jewish people grappled with post-Holocaust: how do we love a God that allowed millions of Jewish people to be slaughtered? How do we love our neighbors who stood by and watched this happen, doing nothing? And how do we love Christians, who some Jewish people believe are responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust and who crucify the Jewish people for the belief that the Jewish people are responsible for crucifying Yeshua the Messiah?
To love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength may be open to interpretation in different communities. Some may view this part of the prayer as imploring us to consider giving our financial means to the Kingdom of God. Yet from the rabbinical angle, loving God is not necessarily interpreted as financially giving all we have to the Lord and impoverishing ourselves, and the Jewish views of charity are expanded on in different sections of Jewish law outside the scope of the V’ahavta. The rabbis view the V’ahavta and loving God as an outward attitude toward not only God but our fellow mortal humans, both believers and non-believers, in a way that may inspire and influence others to live more holy lives and spread the love of God through our witness, and not a financial transaction in Heaven.
Yet as such things as respect cannot be demanded or commanded, how can love be commanded, or a mitzvot of God’s children? Does this not go against our carnal ways? As Franz Rosenzweig, a German theologian and philosopher whose intellectualism and teachings helped shape both Jewish and Christian theology in the early 20th century, once described it, "You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all that is yours. You shall love—what a paradox this embraces! Can love then be commanded? Yes, of course, love cannot be commanded. No third party can command it or extort it. No third party can, but the One can. The commandment to love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover."
Too often, it is easy to see love as a warm and fuzzy, or perhaps more profound and difficult-to-describe emotion. Could it be more profound than this and rather viewed as an attitude that we exemplify and that naturally flows from us as our hearts of stone are chiseled away by God and restored with His heart and His spirit, which extended to others manifested in what humans can best describe as love? Could it be that love is a choice that we can make in how we treat our brothers and sisters, both those who know the Lord and those who do not? Could it be that where we fall short as mere humans, godly love means our hearts are in such a fallow condition that God’s love and spirit can shine through us even where we inevitably fail in and of ourselves?
Yeshua himself builds on these themes in His teachings. There are parallels between the second line of the V’ahavta, "and these words which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart," and Yeshua’s commentary in Mark 12, where He transitions from "and these words which I am commanding you today shall be upon your heart" to the essence of the second greatest commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself."
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Yeshua had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Yeshua “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, Teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Yeshua saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions (Mark 12:28-34).
Some of these principles of love and the relational aspects of our faith can be extrapolated to situations involving reconciliation. For when God says not to take our gifts to the altar without reconciling with our brother (Matthew 5:24), He is not saying don’t come to Him in service and in love with your gifts, time, talents, and treasures, but He is emphasizing the importance of reconciling with your brother. He is not saying do not love Him first and foremost and do not come to services or approach the altar with your gift, for these are important, but so are your relationships with one another.
This point is more dramatically portrayed in leaving the religious service to go reconcile with your brother, no matter how far away from the service your brother may be, insomuch as you are able, for it takes two parties to reconcile. In the reality of a broken, sin-polluted world, you may not always be able to achieve this desired result, though it does illustrate a relational aspect to God’s love, an Agape love, a selfless love, a deeper, more beautiful love that more closely parallels the love God has for each of us and wants manifested from each of us than merely eating vegan tithing, observing the Sabbath, and merely showing up to church or synagogue while diminishing the humanity of the experience and the relational aspects of God’s love that He desires on earth. But this passage does illustrate an outward application of V’ahavta in which God indeed places value on relationships between one another, even if it may involve hard or uncomfortable conversations or making the effort to intentionally travel an unknown distance to make amends in the here and now before merely going through the motions of religion.
Reconciliation, which takes a special type of love, is not a type of temporary peace or ceasefire but a restoration of shalom between God and His creation and a beautiful manifestation of V’ahavta. And if we are unable to reconcile, then we are to love this person anyway, even if the sins of a broken world may mar the beautiful concept of V’ahavta.
A godly character is more than a checklist of you shall and you shall not, do this and not that, rules, and rituals, and a truly consecrated heart that loves relationally will strive to place and love others ahead of themselves. Even if we must carry through on Matthew 18:15–17 and someone’s actions have merited them the equivalent status of pagan or tax collector, that does not mean exile this person, never speak to this person again, but to love this person enough to still extend mercy unto them and desire them to find their way back to fellowship if lost and to the Kingdom of God.
If this person is an unbeliever, may our love shine through such that this person who we may deem a pagan or tax collector, despite their actions, will not be repelled from the message of the church in the future by our portraying a lack of love now. You may not win over this person for the Kingdom right now, but your seed of love may be watered and nurtured later. Your testimony of God’s love, V’Avavta in its purest and sweetest form, may help win back those believers who fled out of the back door of a previous church over a lack of love in a previous experience, and is more likely to help win someone back to the church than reason, logic, or doctrine alone.
What about those who are ill in the church? So often we show love to those with acute injuries or certain diseases, such as cancer, strokes, or dementia. We may offer to help mow their lawn, send cards, organize food trains, send over casseroles or flowers, or call or visit the person in the hospital, but how much love for our neighbors do we extend for conditions that may be chronic, invisible, not seen as quite acceptable by society, or considered mental illnesses? How can we expand on loving all of our sick neighbors, not just certain ones?
Do we only show love to our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith and model a different flavor of love to unbelievers?
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father, who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and he sends rain on the just and on the unjust. If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43–48).
The converse is just as bad. Do we spend all of our time and energy so focused on outreach that we disregard our own congregations, families, and fellow believers in pursuit of solely the lost? Even among believers, may we not assume one is saved and thus unworthy of our time or love while we strive to save unbelievers deemed wayward; may we show love for believers as well, even if we think their salvation is secure for we are not the ultimate judge of their salvation and we all have room to grow in spiritual grace and maturity. May evangelism be more than leading one to baptism and teaching the Shabbat over Sunday-keeping, then dropping the relationship with someone, but helping that individual grow and mature his/her faith even once a fully-fledged church member.
For those of us who are church employees, may we not become so bogged down in church administrative tasks, sermons, and "doing church" or "going through the motions of church or religion" that we put relationships on the back burner or forget how to love one another in practical, meaningful, godly ways. While outreach to those needing to hear the gospel is important, may we not neglect those who we have brought to Yeshua in the process.
May pastors never put so much stock in their teachings, their sermons, their seminary experiences, their Master of Divinity degrees, or their years of experience that they believe themselves infallible, holier than thou, beyond reproach, and somehow more spiritually mature than everyone else who is somehow striving to their level. Pastors may understand the 28 Fundamental Beliefs and be able to explain the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation in their sleep, but without love and the relational aspects of the gospel, what has been gained?
May love not be limited to merely preaching the most touching sermon or being the best evangelistic speaker in town or having the most baptisms, but practically exemplified in the community in the everyday highways and byways of life as an example to others. We may not evict or disfellowship congregants from our congregations merely because we deem that actually ministering to them and relating to their struggles, meeting them where they are at which we may not totally understand or feel totally equipped to resolve on our own, takes time away from church administrative tasks. May there be a balance of necessary church administrative tasks, preaching, healthy godly relational aspects, law, grace, healthy boundaries, not forsaking one’s own family, health, and needs, and not burning out.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; and love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; and as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, and I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to my childish ways. For now, we see in a dim mirror, but then we will see face-to-face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
May our churches remain a hospital for the sick and sinners striving for God’s standards where sinners are welcome, not a self-ascribed religious country club where one feels he or she must be perfect and maintain perfection to retain membership or fellowship. For Yeshua came to save the lost and the sinner; if you are already perfect, then why do you need a Messiah or the church?
Each day, may we, by God’s grace, learn to forgive others as we confess our own sins (Luke 11:4). May we let love cover a multitude of sins between one another (1 Peter 4:8). Each day, may we consider those we may have hurt by our actions, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and consider how we may restore godly harmony to our human relationships on earth. This applies both in the church and even among unbelievers, for such an act may witness to unbelievers a tidbit of God’s amazing grace and love for someone who will otherwise not pick up a Bible or attend a congregation but who may be receptive to our witness of V’ahavta. May we be found not far from the Kingdom of God in the here and now in how we manage our relationships on earth, and found ultimately blameless on the glorious day of His return. For through love, love is often awakened.
Each day anew, may we not only seek the Kingdom of Heaven and our first love, our God, who is the maker of all Heaven and earth, and His Son, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind, but also the beautiful theme of V’ahavta: how we can better (by God’s grace, of course) love our neighbor as ourselves, the second greatest commandment in the Bible, reiterated by Yeshua Himself. May we not dismiss the suffering of another one of God’s creations for whom He died as a burden, an inconvenience, or someone merely needing to pull themselves up by the bootstraps harder as we write them off to pursue the rat race, even if that rat race may fall within the jurisdiction of church employment. May we trust God first and foremost, but not be so spiritually minded that we write off the practical loving things we may be able to do to assist with a situation, even if it may merely be listening.
Salvation for the saints is not only found in adherence to the commandments but also in the testimony of Yeshua. His testimony is not limited to merely His red words printed in our Bibles but extrapolated to the outward testimony of His attitude and spirit of selfless love toward other people. The testimony of our Messiah, though actions and not merely words or church activities, loved the woman at the well, left the 99 sheep to seek out the one, intentionally sought out and outwardly loved the seemingly unlovable by worldly standards to make a point for all of humanity forevermore, demonstrated the ultimate reconciliation between God and fallen humanity, and humbly modeled how to unselfishly put others before ourselves—true V’ahavta.