This week in synagogues worldwide we read the commandment: “And you must love THE ONE, your God, with your whole heart, with every breath, with all you have” (Deuteronomy 6:5) – an obligation that appears long after we encounter the golden rule commandment (in Leviticus 19:18): “You must love your fellowman as your [very] self.”
One would think that in God’s laws the commandment to love Him should precede all other obligations that require love for others including the alien who sojourns among us (Leviticus 19: 34).
But that is not so. Loving human beings as individuals comes way before loving God.
We also meet a nuance of this concept in Ruth’s affirmative words to Naomi her mother-in-law: “…Your people shall be my people and your God my God (Ruth 1:16).” Here, Ruth the Moabite expresses her understanding that in her new religious identity, even as she joins the Hebrew nation, she first belongs to a people and only then to their God.
Indeed, more than a few people hide behind their love for God if only to visit on other people hostility (if not violence or bloodthirstiness); contemporary or historical cases are rife. By this vein, when encountering a person in distress, need or trouble we should not say to him that God will help him out, but should do so ourselves practically and meaningfully, thus allowing God to work in this way through us.
The Rabbis of yore even taught us that it would be better for us to abandon our belief in God (if we must) as long as we keep and follow His word; by doing His word we‘d eventually come to love Him as well. This may explain why Abraham aborted God’s command to sacrifice Isaac after he heard the angel of God (an inner voice?) but not God Himself to cease and desist from this unfolding action. Why, God’s commandment prohibiting the shedding of another person’s blood (Genesis, 9:6) had to be held before Abraham would express his love for God Himself by fulfilling His demand that negated His rule. If the two could not be compatible, then first let the love for God make room for the love for God’s law.
Indeed, Deuteronomy 6:5 tells us that our love for God could only be expressed by living by His written word. Herein lies the answer to the question why God’s commandments to love people appear much before the command to love God.