The Reform theologian Jakob Josef Petuchowski once wrote the following about this week’s Torah portion: “A Jew reads the Torah not as one reads a novel or a newspaper, but as one reads a love letter eager to extract every bit of meaning from it.”
Petuchowski was commenting on Deuteronomy 11:1 from this week’s portion, which states, “Love your God and always keep God’s charge, laws, rules and commandments.”
This verse follows many verses in which the people are admonished by Moses and God not only into following the laws, but are reminded that they are a stubborn people who only stand in this great situation but for the merit of others.
This juxtaposition is not unlike the one we find between the first and second paragraphs of the Shema. The first from last week’s portion talks of loving God, the second paragraph from this week’s portion talks primarily about the perils of not listening to God and the loss of divine love.
In fact, we often seesaw back and forth between these two ideas throughout the text. I must ask why it is necessary to place these two paragraphs in the Shema, or why we need to walk the balance between divine love and fear. If we are truly to read the Torah as Petuchowski suggests, like a love letter, we need to feel more love. As human beings our ideal loving relationship is not based on fear but rooted in a shared and equal bond based on love and commitment. To expect anything less from our relationship with God is unauthentic. My teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, wrote in his book “A Living Covenant,” “….God invited the Israelites to participate in the dramas of building a divine kingdom in history…..God has the community’s allegiance because Mitzvot give meaning to its relationship with God and to its existence in the world. The Mitzvot are a gift of God’s love not a price for services rendered at Sinai.”
Perhaps for as in a modern context, the juxtaposition of these two ideas of divine love and retribution that we see throughout the book of Deuteronomy is not meant to scare as it was the Children of Israel.
I think that following the direction of Petuchowski and the theology of Hartman we can see that the commandments we are warned to follow repeatedly during the biblical narrative are in truth not meant to elicit fear but to extract feelings of love for God and the Jewish community.
There will be times when these laws fail, especially in moments when they seem to lack love or kindness. We can handle the juxtaposition of love and warning, because we know our communal history empowers us to navigate this seeming conflict and emerge with a better understanding and a completer and more honest outcome.
Rabbi Gruenberg is the senior rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Schools.