PARASHAT EKEV

 

“If You Will Diligently Obey”

 

Choice and Responsibility in Mitzvot

 

And it shall be, if you diligently obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love Yahweh your Elohim and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the early rain and the late rain, that you may gather in your crops and your wine and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle that you may eat and be full. Take heed to yourselves that your heart is not deceived, and you turn aside and serve other Mighty ones and worship them, and then Yahweh’s anger be inflamed against you, and He shut up the heaven that there be no rain, and that the land not yield its fruit, and you perish quickly from off the good land which Yahweh gives you. And you shall lay these, My words, in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they will be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your home, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall write them upon the door posts of your home, and upon your gates… (Devarim 11:13-20)

 

This unit presents an equation. “If you will diligently obey,” then there will be rain. There will be crops, and wine, and oil; there will be vegetation for your beasts, “and you will eat and you will be satisfied.” There will be abundant blessing. If you will not obey, the heavens will be closed up; the ground will not yield its produce, and eventually “you will perish quickly from off the good land which Yahweh your Elohim gives to you.”

 

This equation raises several questions. What is the relationship between the nature of the Divine service presented here – “to love Yahweh your Elohim and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” – and these descriptions of reward and punishment? Do the latter not cast doubt on the purity of a person’s motives? Is it possible to create a foundation of love where there is a warning that if this love is not maintained, there will be heavy punishment? Imagine for a moment a parent warning his child, “If you love me – all will be well; if not – woe to you!” Is this really an appropriate foundation for a profound and meaningful love?

 

To broaden the perspective on this unit, let us take a step backwards, to the verses that precede this unit and create its context.

 

“Not Like the Land of Egypt”

 

For the land into which you go to possess it is not like the land of Egypt, from whence you came out, where you sowed your seed and watered it with your foot, like a garden of vegetables. But the land into which you go to possess it is a land of hills and valleys, and it drinks water of the rain of heaven; a land which Yahweh your Elohim cares for; the eyes of Yahweh your Elohim are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Devarim 11:10-12)

 

These verses offer a definition of the uniqueness of the Land of Israel. The text declares that it is “not like the land of Egypt,” thereby contrasting the two lands with one another. The addition of the words “from whence you came out” defines this contrast as a fundamental principle. Yahweh declares: I brought you out of the land of Egypt, which follows a certain set of natural laws, to a land where a different reality prevails. In Egypt, water is readily available, and with a simple movement of the foot it can be channeled in one direction or another. In contrast, “the land into which you go to possess it is a land of hills and valleys, and it drinks water of the rain of heaven.” In a land of hills and valleys, agriculture is a more challenging task. And this land “drinks water of the rain of heaven.” Water is not constantly available, and there is no certainty of its provision.

 

In seeking to propose the principle behind these differences, we might say that life in Egypt is conducted without exertion and without Divine intervention. In Eretz Yisrael, however, one must rely for food on the hills and valleys and for rain on the heavens, and this is a complex and all-encompassing challenge. In addition, Yahweh is involved in everything that happens in the land; He cares for it, and His eyes are upon it constantly.

 

Now, let us return to our unit. After the text describes life in Eretz Yisrael as demanding systematic effort, and after Yahweh is described as caring for the land and keeping His eye upon it constantly, the text goes a step further and presents the acknowledgment of this situation and the orientation towards it as a condition for being able to survive in the land: “If you will diligently obey My commandments… to love Yahweh your Elohim,” then there will be rain, and all will be good. If you will not obey, then the heavens will be shut up, the land will not yield its produce, and eventually you will perish from the good land. While the unit does indeed present an equation, this equation is in fact a description of reality, an answer to the question of “how does it work?” Now that the nation understands the “rules of the game,” it can be entrusted with responsibility for what is going to happen in Eretz Yisrael.

 

In order to attain a deeper understanding of this unit, the second paragraph of Shema, let us now compare it with the first paragraph, which we discussed in last week’s shier.

 

First paragraph

Second paragraph

Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is One.

 

And you shall love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

And it shall be, if you diligently obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love Yahweh your Elohim, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the early rain and the late rain, that you may gather in your crops and your wine and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle, that you may eat and be full. Take heed to yourselves that your heart is not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other mighty ones, and worship them, and then Yahweh’s anger be inflamed against you, and He shut up the heaven that there be no rain, and that the land not yield its fruit, and you perish quickly from off the good land which Yahweh gives you.

And these things which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.

And you shall lay these, My words, in your heart and in your soul,

 

and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they will be as frontlets between your eyes.

And you shall repeat them to your children, and speak of them when you are at home, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

And you shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your home, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise.

And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand

 

And they shall be as frontlets between your eyes

and you shall write them upon the doorposts of your home, and upon your gates.

And you shall write them upon the door posts of your home, and upon your gates

 

In order that your days may be multiplied and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heaven upon the earth.

 

Similarities and Differences

 

The skeleton of the two units is similar. The first starts with love of Yahweh; the second starts with love and service of Him. Both speak of placing things “upon the heart;” both speak of teaching children, of binding upon the hand and between the eyes, and of placing Yahweh’s words upon the doorposts and gates.

 

The similar structure points to a similar process that takes place in both instances. In the first paragraph, the point of departure is an inner love of Yahweh, which gradually takes on tangible form in expanding spheres of the reality of life. Now we can see that the second paragraph also invites inner contemplation that likewise starts with the love of Yahweh, and from this point extends outwards. What distinguishes each of the two units? What process takes place in each of them?

 

Along with the similarities, there are also differences between the two units:

 

The first paragraph is formulated in the singular, while the second is (mostly) in the plural.

The first paragraph is preceded by the declaration, “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our Elohim – Yahweh is One.” The second paragraph features a concluding verse: “In order that your days may be multiplied and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh wore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heaven upon the earth.”

The love of Elohim in the first paragraph is “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” In the second paragraph, there is no mention of “might.” The demand here is “to love Yahweh your Elohim and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

In the first paragraph, there is no mention of any system of reward and punishment; in the second paragraph, this is the main subject.

The first paragraph is not limited in terms of either time or place. The second paragraph has a historical context – different periods in the relationship between Yahweh and His people, living in the Land of Israel or living in exile.

 

There are also literary differences as well: “And these things (ha-devarim)… shall be…,” in the first paragraph, as opposed to, “And you shall place these, My words (devarai)...” in the second, as well as “being” as opposed to “placing upon the heart.” In addition, the first paragraph speaks of “repeating to your children,” while the second speaks of “teaching them to your children,” and more.

 

A biblical unit is more than just a collection of details. It is an organic unit, with a main subject around which everything is organized and a process that takes place over the course of it. What is the subject of each unit, and how do all the details receive meaning from their context?

 

Hearing, Choice, and Will

 

To attain a deeper understanding of each unit, let us consider the reason for the love of Yahweh according to each. In the first paragraph, there is a command, “You shall love Yahweh your Elohim” – but no explanation is given. There is a love that is embedded in the depths of Creation, somewhat comparable to the love between a child and his parents, which is not dependent on any reason; it is profoundly a part of reality. In the second paragraph, there is no command to love. The content of this unit is the setting down of an equation concerning the existence or survival of the nation in its land, which is not a simple, self-evident matter. Therefore, the commandments are given so as to mold everyday life in the land, along with the love of Yahweh, which elevates life to a higher spiritual plane. Now the choice lies in your hands. If you are attentive to these laws, your life in the land will be one of ultimate goodness. If you will not commit yourselves, the heavens will be shut up, the ground will not yield produce, and eventually you will perish. The question is: what is the reason for loving Yahweh, from the perspective of this second unit? The answer is that love of Yahweh is a component in the nation’s assumption of responsibility for its existence in the land. In other words, love of Yahweh generates and sustains life.

 

Returning to the comparison between the two units, it turns out that even those aspects which appear similar are not actually the same because the subject of each unit is different. The second unit states, “And you shall lay these, My words, in your heart and in your soul” – but the reference is not to the love of Yahweh, as it was in the first unit. Here, the matter that should be laid in your heart is the equation setting down your responsibility with regard to existence in the land. In contrast to the formulation in the first unit – “And these things… shall be…” – we now find, “And you shall lay these, My words….” Laying something in a place is a tangible act, appropriate to the concept of responsibility, as opposed to “being,” which is appropriate to love that exists in the heart and soul. The “binding as a sign” likewise conveys a different message in each case, as does the instruction to teach the children. Concerning this latter element, it should be noted that the second paragraph states, “And you shall teach them to your children, speaking of them…” – an instruction which is understood as entrusting the parent with responsibility to educate the child. Every parent is responsible for teaching his child, and society as a whole is responsible for the education of the next generation. “If you will diligently obey My commandments” and assume responsibility for them, then your existence in the land will continue in the future generations. If you will not take responsibility, then you will perish from upon the land.

 

As to differences between the two units: The first paragraph deals with love of Yahweh that suffuses the heart and soul. In this context, any consideration of reward and punishment would indeed spoil and cloud this experience. In the second paragraph, the noting of the respective ramifications of choosing the good path or the bad path is the foundation that allows a person to understand reality and to assume responsibility for it. The first paragraph is written in the singular, describing an inner, intimate relationship between the individual and his Yahweh. The second paragraph addresses the collective, in the plural, with the subject being the nation’s responsibility for its survival as a society in the land. The first paragraph is introduced by the declaration, “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our Elohim – Yahweh is One.” This serves as the basis for the command to love Yahweh. In the second paragraph, the addition comes at the end, elaborating on the way in which the proper choice to obey Yahweh will influence life in the land: “In order that your days may be lengthened, and the days of your children, upon the land….” In the first paragraph, the love of Yahweh is described in terms that include the reinforcement, “with all your might.” The Sages interpret this as referring to a situation in which a person is required to give up his property (Berakhot 9:5). In the second paragraph, the subject is not selflessness, but rather the opposite – solid, flourishing success in the land. The first paragraph has as its vision a love that is independent of time and place, while the second describes an historical process – a period of success during which the nation assumes responsibility for its life, leading to the ideal of goodness: “In order that your days may be lengthened, and the days of your children, upon the land which Yahweh your Elohim swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heaven upon the earth.”

 

Responsibility, Choice, and Will

 

Having identified the concept of society’s responsibility in the second paragraph, we now understand that the expression “reward and punishment” is not an accurate way to define the subject. Instead, we might speak of results and ramifications. Still, we must ask: what does it mean to speak of responsibility where the subject is observance of the commandments – i.e., obeying Yahweh’s word? What is the meaning of responsibility when man has no say, nor even any choice? We might answer this question by tracing the unique place of this concept in Sefer Devarim. Over and over again, the sefer addresses the commandments as the basis for life in the land (Devarim 6:17; 8:6; 10:13; 11:27; 11:28; 28:9; 20:13). This orientation is not limited to the realm of spirituality and ideas, and it adds an extra dimension to the commandments that appear in Sefer Devarim. The commandments not only regulate, but also facilitate life in the land, and the imposition of the obligation to observe them goes far beyond performance of the law or some or other action. These commandments contain within them a principle, entailing responsibility to create a life system, to give it spiritual stature, and to maintain it.

 

Thus, we have two units – “Shema” and “If you will diligently obey….” Each invites the nation and its constituent individuals to listen, to be attentive and “tune in” to an internal experience. The first paragraph addresses this inner experience directly, speaking of “loving Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The second addresses the inverse perspective – man’s choice. This choice demands his answer to the question, “Which do I choose?” or, more profoundly, “What do I want?”

 

Many generations of Jews have contemplated this second unit and perceived in it a system of reward and punishment, and perhaps the fear that paralyzes man and distances him from sin. With the return to our land, we are able to adopt a different position in relation to this unit. “If you will diligently obey” – all with be good. “If your heart is deceived…” – things will not go well. In between these two poles stands man, who must make his choice and decide which he wants.