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Torah Studies
29--Parshat Emor
May 13, 2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...oheiv et hamakom, loving God...

(Leviticus 24:9)'akhaluhu b'makom kadosh; ...[the priests] shall eat it in a sacred place...

On the one hand, no way of acquiring Torah seems more obvious than this. On the other hand, it sounds so, well, Christian.

As soon as we hear people talking about how they "love the Lord," we conjure stereotypical images that are not particularly flattering. Not only are the stereotypes unfair, but our prejudices also disable our ability to experience love of God in a way that is wholly and appropriately Jewish.

How does a person love? Love is not the sense of romance we ascribe to it in contemporary society. Certainly being "in love" is something most people desire, but the ecstasy and passion that we associate with those heady times of infatuation are not the indicators of love. (Not that there's anything wrong with them...)

Christians (who have now received two mentions in this column) distinguish among four different kinds of love. Eros (which gives us the word "erotic") is the romantic or sexual love I mentioned above. Philios is fraternal or friendly love (and gives us Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love). Storgee is filial, the kind of love that parents and children feel for each other. And agape is God's love for us, a selfless and undeserved commitment. None of those four classic understandings of the kinds of love we experience seems to describe what our teaching is trying to promote.

Torah defines the location of love for God in our lives: "all." We are to love God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our might. Lest we not understand what that means, the commentators make it clear. "All our hearts" indicates that we should intend every action to honor God – even when those actions are not what we would consider "sacred." We all understand business ethics and interpersonal conversation to be appropriate ways to show that love, but even in bedroom, bathroom and barroom, we should be devoted to God. "All our souls" indicates that our very lives should be dedicated to God, from conception to demise; living well and dying well demonstrate love for God. "All our might" is understood not as strength, but as material possessions. Whatever we earn and whatever we own should be dedicated to God.

That definition doesn't leave much room for the self. And I suspect that is the point. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells a wonderful true story of how, one snowy winter midnight, he went in search of candy bars for his pregnant wife who craved chocolate and almonds. He could have stayed in a warm bed and his wife would have understood, but he set aside every ounce of self-concern and went in search of what she wanted. He said, "Doing what my lover wanted made me happier than doing what I wanted. It was more fulfilling. It was transforming. By letting go of myself and serving someone whom I loved, I reached a state of humility and an otherwise unattainable fulfillment."

That's as good a definition of love as I can imagine: a willingness to put the needs of another ahead of your self-interest. Every act then becomes an act of devotion.

The verse I selected from this week's portion is about something very ordinary. Each week, as part of the maintenance of the Tabernacle, twelve loaves of bread were arranged as an offering on Shabbat, and then eaten by Aaron and his sons "in a sacred place." The word "place" means a physical location in the Torah, but often stands in as a name of God in later literature. Aaron's love of God is instructive for us; he dedicated his every action, including his grief and disappointment, and his material wealth, which he gave up entirely, to God's service. He also gave up his life, relying entirely on the commanded generosity of the Israelites for his very sustenance. When he and his sons and the generations beyond sat in the sacred space to eat the offerings of the other tribes, it was a testimony to the holiness of God and their love for God.

Such devotion is impossible for human beings to sustain continually. It ebbs and flows with the circumstances of our lives. Only God can sustain such love perpetually and return what we offer. More colloquially, it is what Paul McCartney meant when he wrote, "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." By loving God, we open ourselves to the sustenance of God's love through Torah.

How can you practice oheiv et hamakom? Imagine simple and everyday acts as offerings of devotion to God. Perhaps including the appropriate b'rakhot before and after them – eating, studying, washing, taking your first steps each day – will help to raise your consciousness. Select a few actions and, before you do them, dedicate them to God with two simple words: For You.

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