The Love of Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week 15, Sermon 9: The Love of Hashem

Aruch HaShulchan opens this sermon by declaring something which was obvious to him but is not so today.  I point that out first because I always find it interesting when cultures of Torah change so much that that which was simple to one group of Torah observant Jews is not to others. It calls on us to pause and evaluate the change, to see whether we’ve lost something important they had, or whether times have just changed. We’ll get back to that.

The Centrality of Love of Hashem

In this case, he saw it as well-known that the purpose of Torah and all the service of mitzvot that we do is the love of Hashem’s Name. His next claim, also not necessarily well-accepted, is that without love of Hashem, observance eventually recedes and dies. That’s why the tochacha in   Devarim—where the Torah warns us about the punishments that come for failure to serve Hashem properly—stresses our failure to serve Hashem with happiness and a good heart.

Others took that fairly literally, that we deserve punishment even just for not obeying the Torah happily (e.g., Rambam, Hilchot Shofar, Sukkah, ve-Lulav 8;15; he reads the verse other ways elsewhere in Mishneh Torah).

Aruch HaShulchan is surprised that such terrible punishments could be retribution for lack of proper happiness. That’s why he instead says the problem is that observance not infused with that will not last. When it fades, Jews will sin and incur terrible retribution.

He infers a similar idea from the second paragraph of Shema that we recite twice daily. The paragraph speaks of the good times that come from listening to Hashem and the reverse that will come if we do not. In introducing that punishment, the Torah warns us to be careful “lest your hearts be seduced astray.” Why not warn us lest we fail to observe, or lest we worship idols?

His answer is that this paragraph isn’t primarily about keeping mitzvot, it’s about cultivating the emotions that will maintain our connection to mitzvot. The paragraph speaks of hearkening to Hashem out of love, not just the bare fact of obedience. When it turns to the negative, the starting point is of hearts being led astray. It all starts with and stems from what’s going on inside us—with love, we’ll succeed at observance; if our hearts aren’t steadfast, the slope will be slippery and our descent fast and terrible.

The Joys of Love of Hashem

Nor should we mistake this for an obligation, a burden to be borne. Based on Shir haShirim 7;7, which speaks of the beauty and pleasantness of the love of Hashem, Aruch HaShulchan lists ways that love of Hashem is in fact better and more enjoyable than ordinary pleasures. First, as we saw last time, the investment to pleasure ratio is better.

The process of securing a this-worldly pleasure is not itself (generally) pleasurable and, once achieved, is only momentary [I work to earn money to buy great wine; the earning is an effort I don’t enjoy for itself, and then I drink the wine, and it’s gone]. With love of Hashem, the process itself is productive [and, I think he means, enjoyable, if we have the right attitude]. Once achieved, it lasts much longer.

There’s also a greater range of possibilities for love of Hashem than pleasures of this world. Someone who loves grapes (or wine) will not be appeased by apples or plums [although today, some people have expanded their tastes such that it’s likely that one who loves wine will also love a good beer or vodka or something]. In Torah, though, there are many ways to express love—scholars find it in hiddushim, innovative Torah ideas; those less talented find it in study of Talmud and halachic decisors; those less so in Mishnah, those less so in reciting Tehillim, and so on [notably, he does not imagine studying Tanach as a version of this].

The love of Hashem is also less exclusive than other pleasures. If I see someone drinking a fine wine, and I love fine wine but cannot be part of that for whatever reason, I get little or no benefit [unless I’m selfless enough that they’re enjoyment is enjoyable for me] and am, in fact, likely to be a bit jealous, to be bothered by their having an enjoyment I am not. With love of Hashem, since there are no barriers to achieving it, it also doesn’t bother us when others get there.

A final, essential difference is that pleasures of this world fade. If people indulge their pleasures repeatedly, the pleasure dulls [that’s a reason addicts need more and more of their addiction]. That’s not true of love of Hashem, where achieving one aspect leads to more, with no loss of enthusiasm.

[I note that I think each of these claims about the advantages of love of Hashem could be debated or require nuance. We can’t go that far afield here; overall, though, these seem true and sensible points, as long as we remember that they should not be taken as absolutes].

Lack of Love of Hashem as an Illness of the Soul

The question on his presentation thus far that he raises is that if it’s so pleasurable to serve Hashem, how come most people turn toward this-worldly pleasures instead?

His answer, that this is a symptom of widespread spiritual illness, explains several otherwise odd texts. For example, Shmot 15;26 says that if we keep the Torah, Hashem will make sure that all illnesses that befell the Egyptians will not befall us; in reverse, Vayikra 26;15 [even the numbers are reversed!] warns that our failure to keep the Torah will lead Hashem to visit various illnesses upon us. Why should physical health or its lack be the reward or punishment for observance?

Since tradition has it that Hashem acts middah ke-neged middah, metes out to us that which reflects our deeds or misdeeds, it supports his claim that our success or failure at serving Hashem is a function of our spiritual health. When we are spiritually well, we’ll keep the Torah [and enjoy it], and Hashem will give us physical health. And vice verse.

He offers an allegory of a wealthy man who gave his son all the goods he needed for a successful life, but the son went on a problematic path. Bringing the son back from his wayward life would be painful and difficult, and he might complain bitterly at being forced to do it, even as it would in fact be for his own good.

Aruch HaShulchan reads Ha’azinu this way as well [remember that Ha’azinu is the Torah reading for Shabbat Shuvah whenever there is no Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot]. He notes that the phrase ha-le-Hashem tigmelu zot, am naval ve-lo chacham, complains that the people’s failure to see how Hashem had shown them the path to a good life (which makes them naval, lacking in gratitude and lo chacham, unwise) also ends up paining Hashem, as it were, since hu avicha kanecha, Hashem is like our father. (Sanhedrin 46a says that when people suffer, Hashem suffers as well, as it were).

The difficulties of observance, Aruch HaShulchan is saying, stem from a prior lack in us, the lack of love with which we started this sermon.

The Sprinklings of Yom Kippur and the Advantages of the Spiritual Over the Physical

Aruch HaShulchan now offers a reading of why the High Priest sprinkles the blood once up and seven down on Yom Kippur. [I’d have skipped it to save space, but for the fact that we saw him take up this issue last time. It’s a reminder that sermons did not offer the answer to issues raised, but an answer.]

In this version, the question is the source of sin. While those knowledgeable in Torah are responsible for their sins (the seven down, reflective of this world, were indicated by the Torah in the context of a sacrifice that atoned for the kohanim, who were expected to know better), ordinary people could put some of the blame, as it were, on Hashem, for having made so many temptations. We sprinkle once up to say, as it were, that it shouldn’t be seen as totally our fault.

While I don’t have the space to do this full justice, Aruch HaShulchan pushes the argument that the spiritual is more valuable than the physical. It is why Jews have survived while powerful empires have flash across the world stage, why people care more about intangibles like honor than our physical welfare.

Finally, Torah helps us enjoy this world more. For example, without the teaching that a happy person is satisfied with his lot, the desire for money would overcome everything else and rule our lives. Torah lets us truly enjoy that which we have.

Effect of the Spiritual on the Physical

This brings him back to his opening question, which was why Moshe tells the Jewish people (in Ha’azinu), ki shem Hashem ekra, when I call out in the Name of Hashem, havu godel l-Elokeinu, you exalt our Lord. It’s important for them to do that, Aruch HaShulchan says, because Ha’azinu and other statements of the end of Devarim have been warning them that the heavens and the earth, the spiritual and physical realms, are both tied in to the Jewish people’s fealty to Hashem.

Moshe wants them to respond properly so that they can access all the good waiting for them. While at first, that response might be challenging—our overattachment to physical pleasures makes it hard—it’s the best way to all that we truly want, to lives that are filled with all the best kinds of pleasures, spiritual and physical.

About Gidon Rothstein

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