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Torah Commentary
Eikev (August 11, 2012)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Eikev, offers us guidance not in what it means to love or how to love but how to remember to love. These words from Deuteronomy — some of the most powerful and memorable in the entire Torah — were adapted long ago as part of the daily prayer service in the first paragraph following the Sh’ma Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel…”), usually referred to as the V’ahavta. (“And You Shall Love”). In saying these words, we are reminded not only to love God but also to remember to love God.

Now, some would argue that the greatest love of all is the love of one’s children. In fact, in last week’s Torah portion, Va-et’chanan, we saw that the commitment to build a better world for our children helps us to accept our own mortality. The Torah, I believe, teaches us that we show our children that we love them by teaching them to love God.

(As an aside: Although this week’s portion doesn’t actually teach us what “loving God” means, when we pose the question “What does it mean to love God?” to our Emanu-El third graders, typical answers include “Being thankful for being alive and for not being a slave,” “Knowing that all people everywhere depend on each other” and “Taking care of our planet.”)

In our Religious School weekly Tefilah (worship), we challenge our fourth graders to interpret the words of this paragraph. For example, we note that we are to say these words at home, when traveling, when lying down and when getting up. Why, we ask, are these times and places mentioned in particular as times we should remember to love God?

Generally, there are two schools of thought that emerge among our students. Some view these words metaphorically, implying not only these times and places but also everything in between. So, when you rise up and when you lie down — always; when you are at home or on your way — everywhere. Other students are more literal minded and suggest that these times are actually special in some way. For example, when you are getting up in the morning or going to bed, it is usually quiet time, and you are on your own without having to worry about interruptions, so it is uniquely beneficial for personal reflection.

These words can be found on small pieces of parchment inside of two of the great ritual objects of Jewish life: the mezuzah (affixed to the doorposts of many homes) and the t’fillin (traditionally worn during weekday morning prayer services). These are literal, physical embodiments of the injunction to mark the words of this portion on our hands, foreheads, doorposts and gates. Reform Jews historically have been more concerned with the symbolic meaning of these words — for example, that our love for God should be expressed in the work of our hands. Yet, the power of a physical reminder of love can be profound. When I’m not wearing my wedding ring, I feel its absence on my finger.

As Reform Jews, we are challenged to create physical expressions of our love for God (a string around our fingers, as it were) while maintaining our emphasis on the ethical over the symbolic. If we seek to be guided by our traditions and rituals, then observances can play a critical role — so long as we ensure that those rituals are imbued with wisdom, meaning and purpose.

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