Hillel the Elder, sometimes referred to as Rabbi Hillel, was a Jewish religious leader who lived shortly before Jesus’ time. There is a famous story told of him in which he was challenged by a potential convert to teach him the entire Torah while “standing on one foot.” In other words, can you distill the essence and present it succinctly?
That same theme may be behind the question that is raised today by the scholar of law, who asks, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
In answering while “standing on foot,” Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד.
Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād.
Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone!
The fuller text Jesus cites is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today (Deut 6:4-6).
Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Do not miss the point that the discussion of the greatest “law” centers on the word “love.” Most of us miss this connection between the law and love.
Particularly in Western culture, we tend to put love and law just about as far apart from each other as any two things can be. For us, the law is about police officers and courtrooms, about forcing people to do things under threat of some penalty. Love, on the other hand, is about doing things willingly, because we want to rather than because we have to.
Note too, this is no mere sentimental love. It involves the heart but also the mind and will. In the verses that follow the Shema we read:
And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as reminders on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:7-9)
In other words, these teachings and precepts of the Lord are to be taken seriously and insisted upon. Parents are to drill them into their children. There is to be no forgetful moment when it comes to the Lord’s teachings. We are to observe them sleeping, walking, standing still; all the time! Love is like this. It thinks constantly of the beloved and what will please!
St Augustine is sometimes misquoted as saying “Love God and then do what you will.” This is inaccurate. A better translation says, “Love God and, what you will, do.” In other words, when we love our will is conformed to the beloved. We love what they love and who they love.
Consider that a man who really loves his wife does not need a law to tell him that he may not physically or verbally abuse her but rather must support, protect, and encourage her. Nevertheless, though he may not need the existence of the law in writing, he is in fact following the law of love when he observes these and other norms. There is a language of love, a law of love, an outworking of love’s works and fruits. In the end, love does what love is, and love is supportive, enthusiastic, even extravagant in keeping its own norms and laws. Love does what love is.
Thus, when asked about the law the Lord just says that we should love. Yes, love God passionately, with your whole heart, soul, and strength. As you do this, you will love what and whom He loves, for this is the natural fruit of love. The more one loves God, the more one begins to love His laws, His vision, what He values. Yes, all the commandments flow from loving God. Real love has its roots; it has its laws, methods, and modes.
Here, then, is the whole law, standing on one foot: love God. Let His love permeate you completely and every other commandment will implicitly flow from this love.
When we love God, we stop asking unloving questions like these:
Do I have to pray? For how long?
Do I have to go to confession? How often?
Do I have to go to Mass? How often? Where can I find the shortest and most convenient one?
Do I have to read God’s Word?
Do I have to make God’s teachings the priority of my life, overruling all else?
Do I need to honor and care for my parents?
Do I need to respect lawful authority and contribute to the common good?
Do I need to respect life from conception to natural death?
Do I need to work to cherish and safeguard the lives of others?
Do I need to live chastely, reverencing the gift of sexuality that is at the heart of human life and family?
Love does not ask whether we must respect each other enough to speak the truth in love, to be men and women of our word. It does not wonder whether it is acceptable to steal from others or to fail to give them what is justly due. It does not wonder whether we should be generous to the poor rather than greedy, or whether to be appreciative and satisfied rather than covetous.
No, love does not ask questions like these, for it already knows the answer; it lives the answer.
Love is the law, standing on one foot, and all the rest is commentary.
God is merciful and does supply the commentary: in His Scriptures and in the vast Tradition of the Church. Praise God for it all.
The saints say, “If God wants it then I want it. If God doesn’t want it then I don’t want it.” Is that the way most of us talk? Is that the way most of us talk? Many of us are heard to say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad; everyone else has it.” That doesn’t really sound like lovers talking does it? Somehow the saints knew the law of God and could say it standing on one foot. How about us?
All the commentary is nice, and surely needed, but don’t miss the point: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
Love is the law, and the law is to love.