There is a well-known children’s book depicting a nut-brown hare and its child playing a game called “Guess How Much I Love You.” In it, the child stretches tall and wide, jumps high and reaches toward the horizon to show his affection for the parent. In response, the parent always seems to extend the love just a little further. “I love you to the moon!” the child ultimately says, expressing the largest quantifiable measure of love within his grasp. And with patient simplicity, the parent responds, “I love you to the moon ... and back.” The book’s message isn’t about love without limits. It’s better than that. It is a genuine expression of love met with even more love.
The moments when we love completely, when we act fully, and when we are of singular mind amid a plurality of demands and needs are indeed precious. Those moments are the most sacred, the most meaningful because the loving response is equally, if not more powerfully, reciprocated. These moments are inspiring, even knowing that we will only experience them periodically.
This requited love is what we are meant to consider when we recite the words of the Shema and Ve-ahavta each morning and evening, the words of which are found in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan. God commands us to love with all our heart, b’chol levavcha (with all your heart/mind). This is a rare construction of the word for heart, lamed bet bet, with an additional letter to define the limits of our love for God. Why does there need to be an extra bet to describe this love? Are the other forms of love described throughout the Torah somehow diminished by this doubling? Is there a possibility that if we don’t love enough, only one bet worth, that we aren’t fulfilling our duty to God, to others, to ourselves? Could our love, somehow incomplete, be unrequited by the One who demands whole hearts?
This unique construction of the word for heart (which appears here in the book of Deuteronomy and in later prophetic and historical writings) has been the subject of much interpretation over the years. Most famously, we read in the Babylonian Talmud explaining that the two “bets” of the word here refer to the commitment to love in totality — both the good and the bad. It even goes further to acknowledge the two bets are the two constructs of our ego, the yetzer harah and the yetzer hatov — the evil and good inclinations. We can play with the dichotomies between so many concepts of love — the real and the ideal, the past and the future, (maybe in our children’s book) the simple and the complex. All of these dichotomies are not meant to be parsed into isolation. We don’t only get to love the other for the qualities we like. We have to love them for all they possess.
Love, like most emotional experiences, has limitless capacity but is manifest in particular, quantifiable moments. Love is experienced in the countless gestures of help and service to another, in friendship and companionship, and even in moments of chastisement and rebuke. And while love may have unlimited potential, it is only experienced in specific moments. To love b’chol levavcha means we aspire toward a growing expression of love for others, for ourselves, for God. Like the child and the parent playing the guessing game, b’chol levavcha is the caring response we hear from others and even from God when we love this way ourselves. It’s why the words of the Ve-ahavta continue beyond the heart as well. We love with all our souls and all our might because we crave more connection. It is God who desires to respond to every gesture and aspiration along the way. And with a love like this, no guessing in return is necessary.
Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative congregation in Encino.