And you shall love YHWH your Elohim with all your heart and with all your nephesh and with all your might Deuteronomy 6:5 (my adjusted translation)
All your heart – be-kol levavcha. Try saying it. “With all your heart.” YHWH wants – and expects – your whole heart commitment to Him. How will I know that I have made that commitment? I will follow His instructions for living in His world. This second verse in the Shema recognizes the obligation and the honor God has given me. I fulfill His mitzvot because each one is a way for me to demonstrate how much I love Him. There is no legalism here, only joy. “Lord, I love to do Your will.”
But what happens when I don’t fulfill His instructions? What happens when I succumb to the inner rebellion that pushes me away from a disciplined life of joyful observance? What happens when I obey out of compulsion or legalism rather than gratitude? Does this commandment change depending on my spiritual condition?
No. Not at all. To love God with all my heart is to love Him with both my positive and negative propensities.
The rabbis taught that be-kol levavcha means that I am to love God with both human inclinations, the inclination to good (yetzer ha-tov) and the inclination to evil (yetzer ha-ra). “It is incumbent on man to bless YHWH for the evil in the same way as for the good.” Why would the rabbis teach such a thing? They noticed that there is a redundant bet in the word levavcha. The word heart is lev, spelled in Hebrew lamed-bet, but in this verse, the word is spelled lamed-bet-bet before the pronoun “your” (kaf) is added. Why the double bet? The rabbis taught that the double bet represented one bet for each of the two inclinations. Therefore, both inclinations are included in the command to love God.
Consider the psychological impact of this teaching. In our usual religious thinking, men are bent toward evil. Some theological doctrines even suggest that men are inherently evil, born as sinners. In other words, it is not simply the case that men sin. It is rather that men cannot do anything except sin until they are granted a new constitution by God’s grace. They cannot love the Lord with all their hearts because their hearts are entirely wicked. Even their good deeds bear no positive moral currency. But if I view men as the locus of a battlefield between the two inclinations, then good deeds have positive moral value no matter what struggle is raging within me. Good deeds won’t save me because I am still accountable for my bad deeds, but there is a reason to continue to perform good deeds in spite of my sins. Good deeds please God and bless His creation. When I follow His instructions, I feed the good inclination. When I don’t follow His instructions, I feed the evil inclination – but even in my failure I am still called to love Him. Out of my sins, I am still exhorted to change direction – to start again and make it right. From the Jewish perspective there is absolutely no situation in life that does not demand honoring God. I can never throw up my hands and say, “Well, I’m just a sinner,” because there are two bet’s in levavcha.
How often do we become discouraged in our walk because we fall down? The yitzer ha-ra wins one round of the match, or two, and we think, “I’ll never be able to love God with all my heart. My heart is a mess. I am always struggling. I’m not pure in my affection for the Lord. I’m a loser!” At that moment we need a rabbi to say, “You may love the Lord our God with your yetzer ha’ra and your yetzer ha-tov. Why are you so downcast? If you do what is right, won’t it be acceptable? Let the anguish of your yitzer ha’ra become the source of blessing HaShem.”
What change would happen to you if you realized you are the battlefield, not the combatant?
Topical Index: heart, levavcha, sinner, Deuteronomy 6:5, yetzer ha’ra, yetzer ha-tov