Our parsha commences with a reward and punishment classic; first, the reward:
In the future, as a consequence of your heeding these laws, and your guarding and fulfilling them; Ad-noy, your G-d, will guard for you the covenant and the kindliness that He swore to your forefathers. He will love you, and bless you, and multiply you; … upon the soil that He swore to your forefathers to give you.
A bit later, the flip side of the coin [8:11-20]
Look out for yourself lest you forget Ad-noy, your G-d, to not guard His commandments, His laws, and His statutes that I am commanding you today. Lest you eat and be full, and build good houses and live [in them. .. and you forget Ad-noy, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery; ... Like the nations that Ad-noy is destroying before you, so will you be destroyed, as a consequence of your not heeding Ad-noy, your G-d.
The reward for national fulfillment of God's will: national inheritance of the land of Israel. The punishment – losing it all.
Or so it seems. A closer analysis however raises an obvious question. Look back at our original text which speaks of the rewards:
Ad-noy, your G-d, will guard for you the covenant and the kindliness that He swore to your forefathers.
In other words, even when we heed to the word of Hashem, Hashem guards the covenant and the kindliness promised to the Patriachs, ergo, doing the mitzvot is not quite enough! They appear necessary but not sufficient.
The commentators get to work.
One (of several) Ohr Hachaim solutions, essentially upends the question. The verse is not stating that God will rely on the old covenant. Rather Hashem will guard for you the covenant. You deserve it independently, If God made a covenant with the Patriarchs (individuals) who were not obligated to do mitzvot, it is even more compelling that He would guard that same covenant for you, a nation of do-gooders who are obligated [Greater is one that is commanded than one who is not]. We who do the mitzvot of Hashem, are independently worthy of it all.
Greater problems emerge when we look a bit ahead [9:4-6]
Do not think, when Ad-noy, your G-d, smashes them before you, saying: “Because of my righteousness has Ad-noy brought me to inherit this land,” and because of the wickedness of these nations is Ad-noy expelling them before you. Not because of your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart are you coming to inherit their land. Rather, because of the wickedness of these nations is Ad-noy, your G-d, expelling them before you, and in order to fulfill the matter that Ad-noy swore to your forefathers— to Avrohom, to Yitzchok, and to Yaakov. Know that not because of your righteousness is Ad-noy, your G-d, giving you this good land to inherit, for you are a stubborn people. Recall, do not forget, how you angered Ad-noy, your G-d, in the wilderness; from the day you left the land of Egypt until you arrived at this place you have been defiers with Ad-noy.
Here the Torah seems to say that even if we do not do the mitzvot, Hashem will give us the land. How do we understand the opening condition of our parsha, which strongly implies that only if we do the mitzvot will we be able to get the land?
Also, our text seems to be telling us that Bnei Yisrael gained entry into the land even though they did not deserve it while earlier the Torah relates that God will love you, and bless you, an implication that we are doing Hashem’s will?!
It all seems quite complicated. Herein, a few solutions [without the details]:
a. Ramban [Devarim, 9:4]– In general, Bnei Yisrael are deserving, but the last text is referring to the generation of the desert who were rebellious (1).
b. Ohr HaChaim # 2 – entry into the land is due to the Patriarchs, independent of your righteousness; length of stay however [because the oath is only that you should go in] is dependent upon your actions.
c. Ohr HaChaim # 3 [Devarim, 9:4] – You were a kosher but not completely righteous generation – not righteous enough to gain the land without the patriarchs. Thus you needed the covenant of the patriarchs.
Two basic approaches emerge here in terms of what it takes to gain Eretz Yisrael:
1. Mitzvot only – Performing mitzvot is necessary and sufficient. The role of the brit is to establish the purpose and goal of Jewish History. [Ohr Hachaim #1]
2. Mitzvot + – Mitzvot are sufficient; however, even if we don’t do [enough] mitzvot we still may merit Hashem’s chessed due to other factors (e.g. Patriarchs/wickedness of other nations) [Ramban, Ohr HaChaim 2,3]
There is yet a third most striking possibility – one that is at the essence of the classic Jewish worldview.
Many see the notion of reward and punishment as a grand social contract. A grand quid pro quo with the Creator – an I scratch your back, you scratch mine type of notion. God, I’ll do your mitzvot – as tough as they are, and then you MUST reward me! In fact that is partially true, but only because Hashem willed it as such.
For in fact, cold reality dictates that God gave us life and we give him nothing. Does he really need our mitzvot (2)? We are the ultimate debtors who struggle to think of ways to pay back. The simple believing Jew intuitively knows that there is no existence without God. The moment that He is out of the equation so are we. A cute joke:
God was sitting in heaven one day when a scientist said to Him, “God, we don’t need you anymore. Science has finally figured out a way to create life out of nothing – in other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning.”
“Oh, is that so? Explain…” replies God. “Well,” says the scientist, “we can take dirt and form it into the likeness of you and breathe life into it, thus creating man.”
“Well, that’s very interesting… show Me.”
So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil into the shape of a man. “No, no, no…” interrupts God, “Get your own dirt.”
What’s true on terra firma is true in the spiritual realm as well. One might have formulated that mitzvot are our ticket to this world (3), the only reason we deserve to remain. Indeed, Yerushalmi Makkot explicitly states that without Hashem’s introduction of the notion of Teshuva, the sinner rightfully deserves to die, for our very lives depend upon obedience. What purpose mitzvot – a guide to this world. And yet in reality God gave us chesed atop a chesed. Not only did he give us this world, but He promised us that if we do what we must, then we shall be rewarded in an incomprehensibly beautiful transcendent manner.
Thus, doing mitzvot might be the only way to get into Eretz Yisrael, but even then, it is still a grand chesed to receive it. The chesed of God’s reward is unfathomable – but let us close with an insight:
We often make requests from our children by asking a question (Can you please clean up your room, take out the garbage, etc..) implying there is choice. We might even attach incentives (money) What happens to the child who politely turns down the offer? Try it; Better yet – don’t try it. The child might wonder, so if it wasn’t a question why did you ask? The answer of course is that a question (and reward) is less threatening, leaves one with a sense of choice and engenders investment. Parents don’t want automatons – they want menschen.
Hashem says kinderlach – Can you please do my mitzvot (and offers a reward as well) The Lord wants partners and investors, not employees and onlookers. He wants Menschen! To the extent that we embrace His mitzvot completely, no matter what the incentive, our tzelem Elokim, our Divine Humanity (aka our mensch-hood) becomes elevated. For this we were created.
1. It would appear that one can broaden the Ramban to mean that there are generations that are not worthy to hold onto the land. At which point Divine mercy may (or may not) kick in. In order for you to inherit the land.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles