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Is God’s Love For Us Conditional?

Dear Jew in the City,

The second paragraph of Shema seems to say that God’s love for us is conditional. That’s a troubling parent-child dynamic. Is there any other way to understand this?

Sincerely,

Moshe

Dear Moshe,

Thanks for your question, though I must admit that I don’t see in that paragraph what you see in it. But we’ll come to that. 

We’ve discussed God’s love for us before. The last time we talked about this, I shared numerous verses on the topic, including:

  • “Because Hashem loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors…” (Deuteronomy 7:8);
  • “Surely He loves the people; all the holy ones are in Your hand…” (Deuteronomy 33:3);
  • “…because of Hashem’s eternal love for Israel, He made you king to maintain justice and righteousness” (I Kings 10:9);
  • “Since you are precious in My sight, and honorable, and I have loved you…” (Isaiah 43:4);
  • “I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have drawn you with kindness” (Jeremiah 31:2);
  • “I will heal them of their backsliding; I will love them freely…” (Hoshea 14: 5).

There, I cite many other examples and it’s still not an exhaustive list. So I think we can take God’s love as a given. Now let’s look at the second paragraph of Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy 11:13-21:

It will be – if you listen to My commandments that I command you this day, to love Hashem your God, and to serve Him with all your hearts and with all your souls – that I will give rain for your land in its proper time, the early rain and the late rain. You will harvest your grain, your wine and your oil. I will put grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your hearts be swayed, and you turn astray and worship strange ‘gods’ and bow down to them. Hashem’s fury will blaze among you; He will close off the heavens, there won’t be rain and the earth will not yield its produce. You will perish swiftly from upon the good land that Hashem gives you. Place these words of Mine on your hearts and on your souls; bind them as a sign on your hands and they shall be for tefillin between your eyes. Teach them to your children, to speak them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates in order that your days and the days of your children will be prolonged upon the land that Hashem swore to your ancestors, to give to them as many as the days of the heavens over the earth.

Nowhere in there does it say that God will stop loving us. Rather, what it says is that our choices have consequences. If we choose to follow God, He’ll make things easier for us. If we choose to abandon Him and turn towards false “gods,” He’ll make things tougher.

Consequences aren’t spite; they’re the natural order of things. When we were kids, our parents rewarded and disciplined us to teach us right from wrong, and safe from dangerous. In employment, if someone works diligently, he might get a raise or a promotion; if he slacks off, he might get dismissed. This is true in all walks of life. In high school, you can become valedictorian or you can get yourself expelled. In the military, you can earn a commendation or a court martial. Why should God be any different?

It’s good for us to follow God – proximity to Him feeds our souls, while distance starves us spiritually. This isn’t something we can feel, so He needs to send us messages. When we do well, He sends us positive reinforcement so we’ll keep on doing the right thing. If we’re straying, He makes things tougher on us so that we’ll examine our deeds and return to the proper path. That’s not making His love for us conditional. Sure, it’s “tough love,” but tough love is love.

God wants us to love Him; we recite verses that tell us that both morning and night as part of Shema, including Deuteronomy 6:5 and the aforementioned Deuteronomy 11:13. This is a part of our reciprocal relationship with God. As God tells us through Proverbs 8:17, “I love those who love Me.” If we fail to hold up our end of the relationship, however, I Samuel 2:30 says, “those who despise Me will be cursed.” The commentators (Rashi, Malbim, etc. – pretty much all of them) note that this is in the passive. It’s not that God will curse them; rather, they bring it upon themselves by distancing from Him. It’s the natural spiritual consequence of turning one’s back on God.

God wants us to grow spiritually, so He doesn’t just hand us everything, but He does love us unconditionally. What we do with that love is up to us. Unlike God, we’re actually fickle, so any bumps we may experience in the relationship are ultimately on us.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

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2 comments

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  • Y says on April 20, 2022

    It seems like you are saying that you do not believe in human rights. According to what you wrote it seems like you believe that people who do wrong can be deprived of food, and they can die early. After world war two the nations of the world got together and came up with a universal declaration of human rights, which says that every human has rights and those rights are the basic things that humans need to not just survive but to thrive.

    How can a starving person think clearly enough to fix his ways?
    For thousands of years, people have tried to control the behaviors of others using rewards and punishment techniques. Do you believe that punishments were successful at improving behavior of people?
    How can you compare GD to a human parent? Isnt G-D so so so much bigger than anything that we humans with our limited understanding can comprehend?

    Reply
    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on April 21, 2022

      Thanks for your comments, though you draw some erroneous assumptions – not the least of which is the bizarre conclusion that I don’t believe in human rights! (Huh?) You will note that nowhere in the article do I use the word “punishment.” You’re the one who introduced that concept! I use the term “consequences.”

      If you drink poison and get sick, God isn’t punishing you for drinking poison, it’s just the natural consequence of your actions. If you stand on the railroad tracks and get hit by a train – again, it’s not a punishment, it’s consequences. Similarly, if we distance ourselves from God and have a bad crop, it’s the natural consequence. It may be harder to see the cause-and-effect because there’s a larger spiritual component involved than in being hit by a train but it’s still a natural cause-and-effect. If God is the ultimate good (and He is), then getting closer to Him increases our proximity to goodness and distancing ourselves from Him takes us farther away from goodness.

      Lest you think this is just me spinning things, I refer you to the meforshim on I Samuel 2:30 cited in the penultimate paragraph of the article, where it’s explicit not that God is “smiting” us but that, through our actions, we’re “smiting” ourselves.

      As far as comparing God to a parent, I didn’t do that, Chazal did it – all over the place! You may have noticed phrases in the liturgy like “Avinu malkeinu,” “Avinu shebaShamayim,” etc. It’s a pretty universal metaphor.

      Reply

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