Judaism is commonly understood to be a very action oriented religion. We’ve even come to describe commitment to Judaism based upon levels of “observance”. Demographers and community planners are drawn to visible indicators of Jewish commitment that can be quantified – Shabbat, Kashrut, Tzedakah, Torah study and involvement with Israel. Yet the Torah repeatedly whispers to us that there is more - an inner and ultimate goal - “love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 11:13, 22).
The contrast between religion and spirituality has been compared to the difference between reading a menu and eating the meal. When we recite the foundational Shema Yisrael prayer twice each day, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” we are encountering Judaism’s menu. We only begin to nourish ourselves spiritually when this recitation leads to contemplation. What does it mean to love God? Why should I love the Creator? How do I express this love? What should I do if I’m not feeling anything?
We have a long history of writers who have lamented the all-too-common reality of the practice of Judaism falling short of this mark. The prophet Isaiah (29:13) relates how God Himself bemoans those who serve Him “with their mouths and lips, but their hearts are far from Me and their reverence of Me is acted out mechanically.” In the 18th century, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s seminal “Path of the Just” begins with an observation of how common this superficiality is and the vital need for a conscious engagement with the spiritual bottom-line of Judaism.
Love of God is often associated in the Torah with the directive to “serve Him with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:12; 11:13). The service of God is identified by the Talmud as prayer (Taanit 2a). Significantly, the love and service of God are connected with the ultimate spiritual goal of devekut – cleaving to G-d, striving to totally attach ourselves to Him (Deut. 10:20; 11:22). One of the meanings of the Hebrew word for prayer – tefillah – carries the idea of bonding and connection (Noam Elimelech). Clearly, prayer is meant to be far more than the mere recitation of liturgy. According to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, prayer is to be a time when we are to palpably experience ourselves standing in the presence of God.
Luzzatto describes the fostering of this personal connection with God as life’s greatest achievement and greatest pleasure (“The Way of God” I: 2-3). Along these lines, the Chassidic master Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin offered a wonderfully creative take on the Torah’s directive to thank God after consuming a meal. The portion of Ekev contains the source for our Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) “and you shall eat and you shall be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The Karliner refocuses us: “and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied when you bless the Lord your God!”
Of course, the sensitivity needed to nurture and take pleasure in developing this relationship with God doesn’t come easily. Bachya Ibn Pakuda’s classic “Duties of the Heart” suggests that it’s impossible to progress spiritually if we are preoccupied with mundane pleasures and worldly concerns. The Torah relates that the miraculous daily manna which God provided for the Jewish people during their desert trek after leaving Egypt was a test (Deuteronomy 8:16). The Italian Bible commentator Ovadiah Sforno explained that the test was whether the people would be attentive to God if they wouldn’t have to worry about their livelihood.
The lure of materialism is certainly powerful, and we must be extremely determined to withstand the test of affluence. One of the miracles in the Holy Temple was that the rains (geshamim) never extinguished the pyres on the altar (Ethics of the Fathers 5:7). May we, as well, retain our spiritual passion amidst the bounty (gashmiyut) with which we have been blessed.
Rabbi Michael Skobac is Jews for Judaism’s Director of Education.