Parshat Eikev: “What Does Hashem Your G-d Seek from You?”

“And now Israel what does the Hashem your G-d seek from you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to go in all of His ways, to love Him, to serve Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul, to observe the commandments of Hashem and His laws that I command you today for you own benefit.” (Devarim 10:12-13)

Moshe explains to Bnai Yisrael that the Almighty seeks their complete, wholehearted service. However, this does not require any sacrifice of their own self-interest. All that Hashem requests from Bnai Yisrael is for their own benefit. If the nation wishes to pursue its own self-interest, it will faithfully serve the Almighty.

Moshe continues with two additional points. First, he reminds Bnai Yisrael that the Almighty is the master of the heavens, the earth and all that exist, therein. Second, Hashem chose the forefathers and their descendants to be recipients of His love and attention. How are these points related to Moshe’s previous assertion regarding the benefit of a Torah life?

Sforno addresses this issue. He explains that the Almighty is ruler of the entire universe. The heavens and earth, through their perfection, testify to the glory of their Creator. Therefore, the service of humanity does not add to His grandeur.

Nonetheless, the Almighty performed miracles on behalf of the forefathers and Bnai Yisrael. This is paradoxical. A miracle is an abrogation of the natural law. This law is the work of the Almighty. Why does the Creator rescind His own natural order for the benefit of humanity?

Sforno responds that this can only be the result of some unique characteristic of humankind. We are created in the image of the Almighty. This provides us with the potential for a singular perfection. No other creation is created in Hashem’s image. In order to help us achieve this perfection, the Creator performs miracles and suspends His own natural laws.

According to Sforno, all of Moshe’s points are related. Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that observance of the Torah will enrich their lives. He then proves his assertion. Hashem does not seek our obedience in order to glorify Himself. We do not add to His grandeur through our observance of the mitzvot. What then is His purpose in giving us the Torah? Moshe shows that the Almighty is concerned with the perfection of humanity. This must His purpose in delivering the Torah to us.[1]

“For Hashem, your G-d, is the supreme G-d and the master of all masters. He is the great, mighty and awesome G-d. He does not show favor or accept bribes.” (Devarim 10:17)

The text of most of our prayers was composed by the Anshai Kenesset HaGedolah – the Members of the Great Assembly. This assembly of Sages was established during the first exile. It was lead by Ezra. This institution continued to operate until the period of the Hashmonayim.

In our passage, Moshe praises the Almighty. He describes the Almighty as great, mighty and awesome. This description was incorporated by the Members of the Great Assembly into our daily prayers. This phrase is the cornerstone of the first benediction of the Amidah.

There is an amazing discussion in the Talmud regarding this phrase. In this discussion the Talmud seeks the derivation of the title “Great Assembly”. Why was this group of Sages granted this title? The Talmud responds that these Sages returned to the Almighty His crown. Moshe referred to Hashem as great, mighty and awesome. The prophet Yirmiyahu observed heathens destroying the Almighty’s Temple. He exclaimed, “Where is the awesome nature of the Almighty?” He deleted the term awesome from his prayers. Daniel observed that the heathen nations had subjugated Bnai Yisrael. He exclaimed, “Where is the might of Hashem?” He deleted the term “mighty” from his prayers. The Members of the great Assembly responded that these deletions were not appropriate. The awesome nature of the Almighty remains evident even in exile. Hashem forestalls His punishment of the heathen nations. Through this forbearance, the Almighty demonstrates self-restraint. This forbearance is a demonstration of might.

Hashem’s awesome nature is also evident during exile. Bnai Yisrael is a small nation, dispersed among the heathen nations. These nations seek to destroy the Jewish people. Yet, the Almighty’s nation survives in this hostile world. The continued existence of Bnai Yisrael is a moving demonstration of the Almighty’s awesome nature.[2]

We can understand a portion of this discussion. Certainly, the survival of Bnai Yisrael is miraculous. This survival is an expression of Hashem’s providence and his mastery over all the nations of the world. However, the Talmud’s explanation of Hashem’s might is more difficult to comprehend. How does the Almighty’s restraint in not punishing the heathens demonstrate His might?

In order to answer this question we must establish two premises. First, it is impossible to understand the comments of the Talmud in their literal sense. In fact, a literal interpretation would be blasphemous. The Almighty is a perfect unity. He cannot be viewed as composed of parts. Therefore, we cannot actually ascribe restraint to Hashem. Restraint is defined as acting against one’s inclination or nature. This would mean that Hashem’s will is restraining or suppressing His nature. This, in turn, implies that Hashem is “will” and “nature”. This is not consistent with the concept of the Almighty’s unity. Why does the Talmud attribute restraint to Hashem? The Talmud is attempting to explain a difficult concept in terms that are familiar to us. In other words, the Talmud is employing figurative description to explain a difficult concept. What is this concept?

This brings us to the second premise. Human beings have volition. We have the ability to choose between good and evil. This ability explains the existence of evil in the world. The Almighty provides us with the ability to choose. Sometimes, we choose evil. This choice introduces evil into the world.

This analysis is somewhat flawed or incomplete. In fact, freewill and evil are inexplicable miracles. We cannot fathom the Almighty’s nature. However, we do know that He is omnipotent. He is the master of all that exists. Virtually all of creation is completely obedient to the Almighty. The natural laws operate in perfect accordance with His will. A plant cannot decide to not blossom. Gravity cannot elect to arrest its own operation. The universe demonstrates the awesome might of its Creator. Yet, Hashem created on element in His universe that can seemingly deny His omnipotence. This is the human being. We have the ability to sin. Evil can temporarily triumph. In the victory of evil the glory of the Almighty is hidden from view. This phenomenon is not explicable. It is an incomprehensible miracle.

We can now understand the comments of the Talmud. Our sages are drawing our attention to the miracle of sin. We cannot explain the granting of freewill. Freewill, by definition, creates the option to sin. Sin produces evil. Evil, obscures the Almighty’s omnipotence. The Talmud is not attempting to explain this phenomenon. It is instructing us to appreciate that evil involves a miracle that is beyond human comprehension.

“And if you will be obedient to my commandments that I command to you this day, and you will love Hashem your G-d and serve Him with all your heart and soul, then I will provide rain in its proper time – in the beginning and the end of the season – and you will gather your grain, oil and wine.” (Devarim 11:13-14)

In these pesukim Moshe relates Hashem’s promise to Bnai Yisrael. The nation must be obedient to the Torah. The people must wholeheartedly love and serve the Almighty. Hashem promises that, in return, He will assure that the land produces its bounty.

These passages are recited in the second paragraph to the Shema. Nachmanides observes that these pesukim are very similar to the admonition found in last week’s Torah portion. That set of pesukim are the first paragraph of the Shema. There, Moshe exhorts us to love Hashem with a complete heart and soul. However, there is a difference between the two passages. Our pesukim are in the second-person plural. Moshe is addressing the nation as a whole. In the first paragraph of the Shema, the admonition is stated in the second-person singular. Moshe is addressing each individual member of the nation. What is the reason for this distinction?

Nachmanides begins with an observation. The context of the two exhortations differs. In the first paragraph of the Shema, Moshe is discussing our obligations. He explains that we are obligated to love and serve the Almighty. In the second paragraph Moshe is discussing providence or reward and punishment. He explains that the welfare of the nation depends upon obedience to the mitzvot and the people’s relationship with Hashem.

Nachmanides explains the use of the singular or plural form based on this distinction. We are individually obligated to observe the commands and serve Hashem. Moshe stresses this personal obligation by using the first person. However, providence is consequence of the behavior of the nation.

In order to better understand this explanation, it is helpful to review Nachmanides’ general understanding of providence. Nachmanides maintains that any act of providence involves – by definition – an intrusion into the laws of nature. His argument is simple and compelling. Let us consider an example. Reward and punishment are expressions of providence. We are told that the nation will be rewarded for observing the Torah. Our crops will be bountiful and we will enjoy the wealth of the land. This implies that we could not, through natural causes, be assured of this outcome. Hashem will intervene in the course of nature to assure that we receive these blessings. The blessings are produced through an alteration in the natural chain of cause and effect. Accordingly, Nachmanides argues that every reward and punishments involves a hidden miracle. The suspension of natural law is not observable in these instances. Yet, it occurs.[3]

Nachmanides maintains that the Creator endowed the universe with physical properties. He wills the natural laws to exist. In the absence of providential interference, cause and effect governs the affairs of the universe. This is the fundamental basis for Nachmanides’ interpretation of our passage.

The Almighty does not suspends His laws gratuitously. Just as He wills our obedience to the laws of the Torah, He also sustains the natural laws. Providence is exercised sparingly. The fate of Bnai Yisrael – as a nation – is guided by providence. However, individuals do not enjoy the same providential relationship with the Almighty. Nachmanides argues that only the righteous and the wicked can expect providential treatment. The fate of more “average” individuals is primarily guided by natural law.[4]

According to Nachmanides, Moshe used the plural in our passages to communicate the special providential status of the nation. Whereas the individual is generally subject to the caprice of nature, Bnai Yisrael’s welfare is directly guided by the Almighty.

[1] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 10:12-15.

[2] Mesechet Yoma 69b.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Ketvai HaRamban , Drush – Torat Hashem Temimah (Mosad HaRav Kook, 5724), pp. 67-71.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:13.