This week’s Torah portion is Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11.
On Sunday, we observed Tisha B’Av, the day on which our tradition states that both the First and Second temples were destroyed, 656 years apart. According to the Talmud, the First Temple was destroyed because of rampant idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. The cause for the fall of the Second Temple was sinat hinam, or “causeless hatred” between Jews (BT Yoma 9b).
So I do not believe it is a coincidence that the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av coincides with Parashat Vaetchanan, which contains the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, perhaps the two best-known passages of the Torah: “Listen, Israel, HaShem is your God, HaShem is One. You shall love HaShem your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). It seems fitting to follow the destruction of the Temple, caused by hatred, with a reminder of God’s centrality in our lives and the commandment to love God.
But how, exactly, does one show love to God?
The Mishnah gives this answer: “With your two inclinations, your good inclination [yetzer hatov] and your evil inclination [yetzer hara]” (Berakhot 9:5).
While many people think of these two inclinations as the angel and demon on one’s shoulder, a midrash from the third century C.E. gives a different interpretation: “If there were no yetzer hara, people would not build houses, they wouldn’t marry, they wouldn’t give birth, and they wouldn’t do business” (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7).
According to this view, the evil inclination isn’t evil. It’s our tendency to act selfishly, to ensure our own shelter, to provide an outlet for our sexual urges, to try to make a living. If we only followed our good inclination, we would be entirely altruistic and only do things for others. Our evil inclination ensures that we also take care of ourselves.
By applying these two interpretations to our original question, we are able to begin to develop an answer of how to love God. On one hand, we show our love for God by following our good inclination — by performing mitzvot, by pursuing justice, by caring for others.
On the other hand, we also show our love for God by acting selfishly — by making sure we have a place to live, a family to share life with and to pass our values to, having food to eat and money to provide for ourselves.
These, too, are acts of love because without them we would not be able to fulfill the other commandments. In order to take care of the world and to fulfill God’s will, we need to make sure our needs are also taken care of.
Loving God involves us balancing caring for others and ourselves without sacrificing the other.
By reading about loving God right after Tisha B’Av, we are forced to reflect on the fine line between acting out of love for God and acting for our own desires. We recognize how if we only fulfilled our desires, greed, gluttony and selfishness would follow.
This not only leads us to be insensitive to the needs of others, but also to envy and hate others for having more than us or having what we want.
However, it is also possible to help others or give charity not out of love for God but out of a need for others to recognize our piety. This can cause one to become self-righteous and hateful of those who we think are not up to our standards. Only by balancing our two inclinations and acting out of a true love for God can we avoid falling into the traps that caused the destruction of our Temples. n
Rabbi Steven Henkin is the director of congregational learning at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.