by Lois Tverberg
One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul (nephesh), and with all your mind. – Matthew 22:35-37
The command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind & strength is the greatest commandment. It is part of the Shema, the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus and all Jews since him have said morning and evening to commit themselves to follow the Lord. When we think about those words, we tend to pass by the phrase “heart and soul” quickly — probably thinking that it means that we should love God with our spirit and emotions, and very passionately.
Our understanding can be enriched by understanding the word nephesh, “soul,” better. Nephesh means life as well as soul. So the Jewish interpretation of “love the Lord with all of your soul” is actually that we should love God with all of our lives — every moment throughout our lives, even the point of sacrificing our lives for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to their God.
In fact, there is a powerful story told to illustrate that idea. Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the first century AD, one of the most respected Jewish rabbis, was tortured to death publicly by the Romans. It was the time of saying the morning Shema, and during the torture, his students heard him reciting the Shema instead of crying out in pain. His students called out to him, “Teacher, even now?” The dying rabbi explained, “All my life I have wondered about the phrase that says ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your soul’, wondering if I would ever have the privilege of doing this. Now that the chance has come to me, shall I not grasp it with joy?” He repeated the first verse of Shema,”Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” until his soul left him.
This is what Jesus was calling us to, and what he did himself: loved the Lord (and us) with all of his life, until he breathed his last.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).