Parshat Chaye Sarah

Rabbi Bernie Fox

It is my pleasure and honor to submit the following article on the occasion of publication of the 500th issue of The Jewishtimes.  I composed this article specifically for this edition of The Jewishtimes and in honor of its founder and editor, Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim.  I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this publication and share Torah thoughts with its readers.  Congratulations to Rabbi Ben-Chaim on achieving this remarkable milestone.  I join with the readers of and contributors to The Jewishtimes in wishing Rabbi Ben-Chaim many more years of success in this and in all of his endeavors.  

Rabbi Bernie Fox

Paradigms of Love: A Discussion of Various Views on the Nature of Ahavat Hashem

But you, Yisrael My servant, Ya’akov whom I have chosen, the seed of Avraham, who loved Me, (Sefer Yishayahu 41:8)

Avraham’s unique status

Parshat Chaye Sarah completes the Torah’s discussion of our patriarch Avraham.  In the above passage Hashem, speaking through the prophet Yishayahu – Isaiah, describes Avraham as the one who loved Him.  Maimonides notes that this description is significant.  He explains that in its most exemplary form, serving Hashem is as an expression of love for Him – ahavat Hashem. In other words, one whose service of Hashem is motivated by love of Him, serves at the highest level.  He explains that this level is not easily achieved even by the wise and righteous.  Hashem’s description of Avraham as one who loved Him reflects a remarkable achievement by Avraham.  

This raises an important question.  What is love of Hashem?  In other words, we are familiar with various forms of love.  Love can be romantic.  Love exists between a parent and child and among the members of a family.  Love also exists between friends.  Is ahavat Hashem a variation of one of these forms of love or is it a different and unique form of love?  In order to understand the full significance and meaning of Hashem’s description of Avraham as the one who loved Him we must explore this issue; we must understand the meaning of loving Hashem.  

And you shall love Hashem, your L-rd, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.  (Sefer Devarim 6:5)

Foundations for love of Hashem

This issue is important for a more fundamental reason.  In the above passage, we are commanded to love Hashem.  If we are to fulfill this commandment, then we must understand the nature of this love.  We cannot fulfill a commandment until we understand what is commanded to us.  

Rav Eliezer Papo (1785-1826) discusses the nature of ahavat Hashem in his work Pele Yoetz.  He explains that love of Hashem can derive from various sources.  The most basic or minimal form of ahavat Hashem derives from an appreciation of His kindness to us as our provider.  It expresses our recognition of His benevolence toward us.  Rav Papo regards this form of ahavat Hashem as minimal because it is fundamentally selfish.  One’s love of Hashem is derived from love of oneself.  It is because one has benefited from Hashem’s gifts that the person loves Him.  

At the next and somewhat higher level, ahavat Hashem is a response to the opportunity to serve Him.  This love focuses upon recognition that Hashem is Creator and the L-rd of the entire universe in which we are inconsequential creations.  Nonetheless, Hashem has selected us and provides us with the opportunity to be His servants.  Self-interest does underlie this love.  Like the previous level, it is a response to Hashem’s benevolence expressed in His selection of us to be His servants.  Yet, this love represents of a higher level of person perfection.  It is based upon both recognition of the greatness of Hashem and personal humility.  However, this is not the highest form of ahavat Hashem.

The highest form of ahavat Hashem is a response to recognition of His perfection.  Rav Papo does not elaborate on this final form of ahavat Hashem.  He limits his remarks to commenting on Hashem’s perfection and explains that one who truly appreciates this perfection will respond to it with love of Hashem.

What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [Hashem's] great name, as David stated: "My soul thirsts for the L-rd, for the living G-d" [Sefer Tehilim 42:3].  (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 2:2)

One can only love God [as an outgrowth] of the knowledge with which he knows Him. The nature of one's love depends on the nature of one's knowledge! A small [amount of knowledge arouses] a lesser love. A greater amount of knowledge arouses a greater love.  (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:6)

Love of Hashem based upon knowledge

Rav Papo’s comments contrast with the position articulated above by Maimonides.  Rav Papo describes three forms of ahavat Hashem.  Maimonides asserts that there is only one form of love of Hashem.  This love is achieved through the study of His works and recognition of the infinite wisdom that they reflect.  Furthermore, the intensity of one’s love for Hashem is proportionate to one’s knowledge.  The greater one’s knowledge, the more intense will be one’s love.  

In short, Rav Papo describes three types of ahavat Hashem.  Each derives from its own unique source.  The lowest level is a response to Hashem’s benevolence as our provider. The intermediate level is an expression of appreciation for the remarkable opportunity to serve the Creator and L-rd of the universe.  The highest level is a response to one’s recognition of Hashem’s perfection.  

In contrast, Maimonides dismisses these first two levels of love of Hashem.  He recognizes only a love that derives from a recognition of Hashem’s perfection or more specifically a recognition of His infinite wisdom.  Furthermore, whereas Rav Papo does not discuss from where one derives this recognition of Hashem’s perfection, Maimonides is very specific.  The recognition is derived from study of the works of Hashem – the universe He created and the Torah He revealed to us.  

This discussion suggests a basic question.  Why does Maimonides reject Rav Papo’s position?  Rav Papo’s position seems very reasonable.  His premise is that love of Hashem must be based upon some real foundation. There are various foundations that meet with criterion.  One who loves Hashem in response to His benevolence is experiencing a love based upon reality. This is also true of one whose love is a response to the remarkable opportunity to serve Hashem.  Why does Maimonides dismiss these forms of love of Hashem?

For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of Hashem to perform righteousness and justice, in order that Hashem bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him. (Sefer Beresheit 18:19)

The relationship between love and knowledge

There are two aspects of Maimonides’ concept of ahavat Hashem that seem to explain his position.  The above passage alludes to the first of these aspects.  In this passage, Hashem explains that He will reveal to Avraham His intention to judge the people of Sedom and – if they are found guilty – to destroy them.  Hashem says that He will share His intentions with him because Avraham will direct his children and descendants to follow the ways of Hashem and to conduct themselves with righteousness and justice.  

Commenting of this passage, Rashi explains that the phrase “I have known him” communicates love and affection.  In other words, Hashem is saying that He loves Avraham.  He will reveal to him His intentions as an expression of this love.  Rashi’s comments are based upon a nuance of biblical Hebrew.  The term “know” is often used to communicate love or intimacy.  This usage is not accidental and deserves some consideration.

Love can derive from different sources.  It can be a response to fantasy.  An example of this type of love is “love at first sight”.  Such love is not based upon knowledge of its object.   Instead, it is founded upon one’s fantasies concerning the object of the love.  At best, these fantasies are misleading and at worst, they can lead to a disastrous relationship.  The reason for this is simple.  One who pursues such a love is enamored by a person that exist only in the imagination.  The actual person toward whom one’s love and attention is directed is not the person depicted by the imagination.  

Alternatively, love can be a response to understanding and appreciation.  This love can only emerge when one deeply knows another.  From that knowledge and understanding a sincere appreciation develops.  The use of the term “know” to communicate love often refers to love built upon this foundation.  It is this love that Hashem declares for Avraham.

Maimonides’ position is that ahavat Hashem must be based upon knowledge of Hashem.  The aspect of Hashem that is clearly accessible to human grasp is knowledge of His wisdom.  Therefore, Maimonides asserts that true ahavat Hashem is founded upon the study His works and an appreciation of the infinite wisdom that they express.  

What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love Hashem with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of Hashem. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. [A lovesick person's] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for Hashem should be [implanted] in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded [Deuteronomy 6:5] "Love Hashem...] with all your heart and with all soul."  (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:3)

Love of Hashem compared to romantic love

The second aspect of Maimonides’ understanding of ahavat Hashem that is relevant to our discussion is explained in the above comment.  Maimonides describes ahavat Hashem as a displacement of the self.  One’s focus upon and concern for oneself is replaced with an overwhelming desire to be close to Hashem.  Maimonides compares this aspect of ahavat Hashem to romantic love.  A similar displacement of the self is characteristic of intense romantic love.  Yet, he declares that they are not exactly equivalent.  Romantic love cannot achieve the intensity of ahavat Hashem.

Before we can bring this discussion to its conclusion, we must understand this declaration.  Why does ahavat Hashem – when fully experienced – achieve an intensity that surpasses that of romantic love?  

The answer lies in the relationship between the two aspects of ahavat Hashem that Maimonides has developed.  The object of romantic love is imagined as perfect.  But this is not reality.  In some ways the beloved will be imperfect and those imperfections will temper the intensity of one’s infatuation.  Ahavat Hashem does not have this feature; Hashem does not disappoint.  Because ahavat Hashem is based upon knowledge and an appreciation of the infinite wisdom of Hashem, there is no threat of disappointment.  Instead, the greater one’s knowledge and one’s familiarity with Hashem’s infinite wisdom, the more intense the love.  

The uniqueness of love of Hashem

Now, we can understand the fundamental difference between the views of Maimonides and Rav Papo.  Rav Papo understands love of Hashem as the redirecting toward Hashem of the human capacity to love.  It is an expression of the type of love with which we are familiar.  However, it differs from this love in that its object is not another human being.  The beloved is Hashem.  

Maimonides rejects this perspective.  He regards ahavat Hashem as unique. We refer to it as love because it is analogous or similar to our mundane encounters with love.  But is different from the love shared by human-beings.  It is based solely upon knowledge. No element of fantasy is present.  Its intensity and consequential capacity to displace one’s focus on the self is unmatched. It can only grow with more familiarity with the beloved – Hashem.

Avraham’s service of Hashem was an expression of his perfect love of Hashem.  His service was the result of complete devotion to and infatuation with his beloved.  It is this remarkable achievement that prompted Hashem to describe Avraham as “the one who loved Me”.