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An Impossible Contradiction to Resolve?

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, presents us with two seemingly contradictory mitzvot. Each command on its own seems impossible to fulfill. Adding to our confusion, the two commands are brought together in one verse. “And now Israel, what does Hashem your God ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your God, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Devarim 10:12, my emphasis). Also note that these two mitzvot are individual requirements rather than collective commands and that they apply to both men and women.

The two mitzvot, to fear Hashem and to love Hashem, seem to be diametrically opposed to each other. How do we reconcile them? It seems that a person is obligated or required to simultaneously carry two very strong feelings about God at all times. Furthermore, there is a more basic and challenging question to be addressed. How do we love or fear God? If we are told to keep kosher, the objects we can and cannot eat are identifiable. If we are told to hear the shofar sounds, we can learn how to blow the correct sounds. With all other mitzvot there is a tangible object and objective performance that is required in order to fulfill God’s directive. But in these two cases, what exactly are we supposed to do?

Our understanding of God is that His existence is unique and qualitatively different from any existence we know. Simply put, it is non-physical. Not only that but as a result of that idea, we are prohibited from creating any physical representations that refer to God. If we love a person, we can give a hug. If we are in fear of a thing or person we can try to avoid the fear inducing thing or situation. But by God we must both love and fear Him? How?

Fortunately, our Torah scholars address this question. The Rambam in his code of law, the Mishnah Torah, discusses these two mitzvoth.  In chapter 2:2 “Foundational Laws of Torah,” he explains that the fulfillment of these two mitzvot find unification via the pursuit of knowledge. The proper acquisition of knowledge should produce two simultaneous affects in the individual. One natural affect occurs after seeing the wondrous concepts behind the wisdom of the universe. Such an individual who appreciates the ideas and insights will immediately love and praise the Creator yearning with a tremendous desire to know more about God. This attitude is expressed by David in Psalm 42:3, “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God.”

The second natural affect derives from the very same experience of seeing the ideas behind the workings of the universe. The investigator is struck, overpowered by awe and reverence for the Creator, appreciating how he is a tiny, low, flimsy creature standing with limited, feeble wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge. David also stated in Psalm 8:4-5, “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers … I wonder what is man that You should be mindful of him.”

These two mitzvot, then, are a barometer in the process of another activity, the process of learning.  If the process of learning is done properly, the learner should be imbued with two sensations at the same time. One is the desire to know more about the Source of the ideas. The other is to be in awe of that same Source. These reactions to knowledge are similar to those expressed by some of our greatest scientists. They write about the inspiration they have to see more of the beauty behind the workings of the universe; yet they also relate how humble they feel at the sight of their new found understanding.  If this explanation is true, it also accounts for why these two mitzvot are mentioned in the same verse. They find unification in the same activity and they register simultaneously in the individual. The Torah could not properly talk about one without immediately referencing the other. They are, so to speak, opposite sides of the same coin.

May this week’s Torah portion motivate us to investigate deeply into our religion, the only one also created by the same Creator of the physical universe. It too, then, expresses the depth and breadth of the wisdom of the Creator.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

For readers of this column wishing to resolve other issues, such as why women are then exempt from the mitzvah of learning, as well as other concerns about the role of women in Judaism, please join us Tuesday morning, August 30 at 8:15 am, in the Posnack Middle School Multipurpose Room, for the first in a monthly adult education series. In the first session we will take up: Misconceptions – Women in Judaism.