August 14th-15th, 1998, 23 Av, 5758
When it comes to quotable quotes, the Book of Devarim surely has no equal in the Chumash.
Last week's parsha, for example, contains Shema
Yisrael, and--immediately afterwards--the classic formulation to love G-d, "with all
your heart, with all your soul and with all your might"...not to mention a repetition
of the 10 Commandments. This week's parsha also contains many, uh...choice
morsels of wisdom, including the observation that, "not on bread alone does man
live." (8, 3) (No pun intended.)
Why exactly does Devarim contain so many memorable and inspiring "Torah
aphorisms," if you will?
The answer would seem to lie in the special nature of
the book: it is the record of the discourses that Moshe delivered before the
Children of Israel in the last weeks of his life, to prepare them to enter the Land of
Israel; it's Everything They Needed to Know (or Be Reminded) About Judaism...but were too
busy to ask. Our Sages termed the book, appropriately, "Mishneh Torah,"
which means, "Review of the Torah." (Devarim is still the word of G-d,
however: Hashem commanded Moshe to inscribe his words in the Torah, so that they would
become part of the Written Law. See Artscroll Chumash, pp.938-39, quoting Rabbi
Yosef Soloveitchek) So, it's no wonder that it is replete with restatements of
Like this following one from our parsha, Eikev.
After recounting to the Jewish people the debacle of the Golden Calf, and,
afterwards, his successful supplications before G-d on their behalf, Moshe declares:
"And now, O Israel, what does Hashem, your G-d, ask of You? Only to fear Hashem, your
G-d, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your G-d, with all your
heart and with all your soul.
To keep the mitzvos of Hashem and His decrees which I
have commanded you today, for your own good." (10, 12-13)
We are all moved by these stirring words, I'm sure.
But we may not realize just how comprehensive a formulation of G-d's expectations
In the introduction of his classic work of ethics, Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just),
Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto states that ALL of the aspects of perfection in the service of
G-d are included in these two brief verses: fear of G-d, walking in His ways, love of G-d,
wholeheartedness serving G-d, and performance of the mitzvos. (The Vilna Gaon, 18th
century colossus of Jewish scholarship and piety himself, is reported to have commented
had the greatest understanding of Judaism possible for a human being to attain...so, we
can probably trust Luzzatto's words!) That's right, all of the essentials are right
here. Luzzatto then goes on to give succinct definitions of each of these aspects of
divine service, which we'll paraphrase and expand on.
FEAR OF G-D
The plateau of the trait of fear of G-d, or yiras
Hashem, is a feeling of awe before G-d, an awareness of one's own smallness and
imperfection before the Creator. There is ample opportunity to develop this
awareness both by studying Torah--which, in its depth and breadth, is awesome--and by
observing the grandeur of the natural world: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the entire world is full of His glory."
It stands to reason that the more one works on having this awareness, on developing a
palpable sense of Hashem's presence, the more meaningful prayer (and one's performance of
mitzvos in general) will become. And the more unreasonable, literally, it will be to
intensely aware that Hashem is watching, one will, naturally, exercise deliberation in
speech and behavior. Luzzatto writes that at the very least, we should display this
attitude during Torah study and prayer.
There does exist a lower level of yiras Hashem which, although not particularly
fashionable in our day and age, should not be so quickly disregarded: simple fear of
punishment for one's sins. It is a sign of our widespread secularization as a people
that most Jews will look at you
funny if you even suggest such things; most are shocked to find out that there is, in our
tradition, some concept of a "purgatory (Gehinnom)." Fear, in this sense,
is far from
the essence of our relationship with Hashem, but it can certainly help, at times, to keep
us all in line.
And if we really want to serve G-d, we should employ whatever means are available!
WALKING IN HIS WAYS
We are commanded to model our character traits after
Hashem. As the Talmud puts it, "Just as He is gracious and merciful, so you
should be gracious and merciful."
(Shabbos 133b) All of one's actions should be praiseworthy, leading (Luzzatto
writes) to "...the strengthening of Torah and furthering of brotherliness." (p.
11; Feldheim edition)
Not an easy process--to make ourselves compassionate people, to overcome our smallness.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, zt'l, great 19th century saint,
remarked that it is easier to learn through the whole Talmud than to change one negative
character trait! It's work for a
lifetime, but it's what G-d expects.
A person should feel an intense love for his Creator,
so that he is moved to do actions that are pleasing to Him. He should love G-d so
much, Luzzatto writes, that it pains him to see others lacking this love; he will be
inspired to help others attain it.
Generally considered a higher level of service than fear, or awe, ahavas Hashem
(love of G-d) is also a lifetime's effort. Maimonidies writes that the best
way to achieve it is to study and contemplate His wondrous works: the human body, the
solar system, the diversity of life on earth. Another way, of course, is through the
study of Torah itself, where we learn so much about G-d's greatness.
One's heart should be complete in one's Judaism.
No grudging, half-hearted observance, no secret feelings of, "I wish I could
be like the members of other nations." Complete and joyous acceptance of the yoke of
Heaven is what we want to reach.
DOING ALL THE MITZVOS
The goal of Judaism is not just feeling holy; Judaism
is, above all, a religion of actions, of doing. Not mechanical observances, but a
careful and inspired guarding of these commandments in all of their details, as in the
phrase, "shomer mitzvos (guardian of the mitzvos)." Moreover, to carry
them out because G-d commanded them, and not
because they promote our own goals. To carry out the mitzvos properly obviously
requires thorough study of Torah...which is, itself, the most important mitzvah in its own
This is a demanding program for the Jewish people, no doubt, but one that is "for
your own good," as the verse states. For our own good: we benefit, in this
world and the next. May we all be inspired to delve into the words of Devarim, and
to make the ideals they describe a guidepost in our lives.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Kollel/ Savannah Torah Education Project. Phone:
fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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