What does true love feel like? Is it fostered when two people share a set of values, expectations, and ideals? Or is it unbounded and unconditional, lacking any rationality, containing only sparks of passion?
This week’s Torah portion tells us that true love entails both.
Upon first glance, one might think that this week’s Torah portion, called Mishpatim (“Rules”), has nothing to do with love and relationships. After having received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in last week’s Torah portion, Moses now recites a list of 53 additional rules that the Israelites must follow in order to enter into a relationship with God.
Many of these laws seem rational, even to our modern-day sensibilities. Torah law prohibits murder, theft, and the abuse of parents. The Israelites must care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in their midst, lest God’s anger “blaze forth… and your own wives will become widows and your children orphans” (Exodus 22:22). The Israelites must make sure their animals do not cause bodily injury to others and are required to pay restitution if they do. Not only are they forbidden to commit usury, they cannot charge interest on any loan. They are taught to avoid bribes, “for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:8).
Taken together, these rules comprise a set of expectations that God has for the Israelite people, with whom God is about to enter an eternal covenant. In fact, scholars refer to these rules as the “Covenant Collection.”
But perhaps we can think about them as God’s relationship criteria. Just as a dating app or website gives people the opportunity to list their preferences and expectations for a potential partner, this is God’s opportunity to set out a vision for what God expects from the Israelites, referred to elsewhere in the Torah as God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In this Torah portion, God sets forth the values and aspirations that God hopes to share with the Israelites as they formalize and deepen their relationship with each other. This process of discovering shared beliefs, standards, and scruples is deeply important when entering any relationship — apparently even a relationship between humans and the Divine.
But after all the rules are discussed, and God’s expectations are clarified, we get to witness the spark of true, unconditional love that exists between God and the Jewish people. At the close of the Torah portion, Moses performs a ceremony that ratifies the Covenant Collection and signifies the Israelites’ acceptance of it. He sets up twelve pillars to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, sacrifices bulls as offerings to God, and ritualistically sprinkles their blood on all the people while saying “This is the blood of the covenant that Adonai now makes with you.” And all of the people shout in response: “All that Adonai has spoken, we will obey and we will listen!” (Exodus 24:7-8).
This response has puzzled commentators for generations. Why do the Israelites first say they will obey the rules, and only afterwards promise to listen to them? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
To me, this is a moment of unbounded love between God and the Israelites. The Israelites will try to understand this complex and detailed list of laws and expectations that God has for them. But for now, they simply accept these statutes, since they know that the love between themselves and God is bigger than any set of rules. At this moment, God and the Israelites just want to be close to each other. They have faith that this relationship will work, and they can sort out the details later.
Right after this moment of accepting the Covenantal Collection, the leaders of the Israelites ascend toward God. Though they can’t gaze lovingly into God’s eyes, the Torah tells us that “they saw the God of Israel, under whose feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the purity of the sky” (Exodus 24:10). They were able to behold God’s beauty, and to be in God’s presence, no rules or standards holding them back.
As we enter this Shabbat (and Valentine’s Day!), may we know the rational love that is cultivated through logic, as well as the unconditional love that defies all reason. True love contains both.