Jewish Meditation, the unknown mitzvah

    January 2009            
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society

The Unknown Mitzvah – Contemplation

By Avi Lazerson

The Rambam lists the 613 mitzvot of the Torah is his book, "Sefer HaMitzvot". In it he lists as mitzvah number three, the mitzvah to love G-d. The first mitzvah that he lists is to believe that G-d is the ultimate creative force; the second mitzvah is to believe in His unique unity, His oneness with the universe; the third mitzvah is the mitzvah to love G-d.

It is this third mitzvah, the mitzvah to love G-d, that is so completely unknown and totally misunderstood. If you were to ask anyone if he is required to love G-d, the reply would almost certainly be yes, that indeed he/she is aware that this mitzvah does exist. What is the source of this mitzvah? The source is Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which is the first and second sentences in the well known S'hma Israel.

What is unusual is the fact that this third mitzvah is found in the fifth of the five books of Moses, (the Torah)! This means that it is located at the end of the Torah that Moses gave to the Jewish people – not in the beginning as should have been expected for such an important mitzvah. Many other mitzvot have been given over from the beginning of the Torah, in Geneses, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Why was this mitzvah, mitzvah number three, given at the end of the Torah in the book of Deuteronomy? If it were of some great importance should it have not been given in the beginning or at least in the Ten Commandments?

Not only that, but the Rambam explains what this mitzvah is. According to the Rambam:

    "We are commanded to love G-d. This is by thinking and contemplating on His mitzvot, what He has said, and His workings (in the world) until you have a clear mental grasp and derive pleasure from this understanding with a great pleasure. This is the love which is obligatory…."

What the Rambam is stating is that we have an obligation to contemplate, conceptualize and/or meditate on G-d until we are able to arrive at a deeper understanding of G-d either through contemplation on His various mitzvot or the assorted statements either that He spoke or are written about Him in the various holy books, or through investigation into the manner in which He is causing and manipulating the world's events to change. This contemplation or meditation should be done in sufficient depth that it will bring us to a greater understanding of G-d Himself, and this much expanded understanding must bring us into a great pleasure.

Now it is known that the Torah is written in basically a historical and chronological fashion. It starts with the beginning of the world and the generations that led up to Abraham, the first Jew. From there it tells about the early lives of the patriarchs and their descent into Egypt. It continues with the Exodus and the various occurrences and happenings of the Jews during their wanderings in the desert before coming into the promised land of Israel. Interspersed are the various mitzvot which came at the various times. When the Jews left Egypt they came to Mount Sinai and received the Torah and the Ten Commandments. But it was not until the end of the forty years of wanderings in the desert that Moses gave them the last book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, which was not until the last year of Moses life that the last of the mitzvot and the final book was given.

The obvious question is why should such an important mitzvah – the Rambam lists it as number three – should be given at the end of the Torah – yet listed at the beginning of the list of mitzvot?

The reason is connected with the essence of the mitzvah. During the early years of the Jewish nation, when they had come out from Egypt, they had witnessed unbelievable signs and wonders, miracles that to this day can hardly be understood. Miracles of the magnitude that nature melted away and a new reality replaced it. The Jews in Egypt lived with miracles; they lived with the revelation of G-d; not a quasi revelation, but an undeniable first class eye opening sighting of G-d's manifest dominion over every part of the world. They saw that it was not nature that made the world to be the way it was, but rather G-d's total command of the laws of nature which He could do away with or change as He so desired.

Later the same generation came to Mount Sinai and received the Torah. They saw what could not be seen and heard what could not be heard. Their entire being was so overcome with the total reality of G-d's manifest reality in the world that they had no need to set aside time to contemplate it. To that generation, it was a stark reality – they saw the splitting of the Red Sea, even the handmaids who came out of Egypt saw more revelations of G-dliness than the later prophets saw.

But the next generation who came after Mount Sinai did not see, they did not experience those experiences and certainly not us, we who live so many generations after the exodus from Egypt we hardly have any awareness or perception of G-d in the world.

Therefore at the end of the Torah, the mitzvah of meditative contemplation on G-d's workings in the world, on His mitzvot, or on various statements was given in order that we can reach a level of love of G-d. It is only through our active mental contemplation and analysis that we can bring ourselves closer to Him.

Now accordingly, to properly fulfill the mitzvah of loving G-d (at least according to the Rambam) we must set aside time to contemplate on G-d in the world, on His workings. This contemplation must be sincere and it must bear fruit – that fruit being the love of G-d in a very active and positive manner.

This could be understood as a person who has a dear friend whom he loves dearly – since his friend has so many good personality traits, intelligence, appearance, etc. When he will think about his friend, it will draw him into loving him, which is manifest by wanting to be with him. He will tell others about his friend and all of the good points that this person has. This is the love which we are commanded to do that it bring us into a desire to cling close to G-d. It is not a love that is from the lips outward, but one which begins in the mind and then comes into the heart. From there it spreads out into the entirety of the person.

This is the mitzvah of loving G-d – a mitzvah that only can be fulfilled through the contemplation/meditation on G-d and His manifestation in the world.


from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine