“You shall not do thus to Hashem your G-d.” ( Devarim 12:4)
Moshe commands the people that they should uproot all objects of idolatrous worship from the land. He then enjoins the nation not to treat Hashem in this manner. The simple meaning of the pasuk is explained by Rashi. It is prohibited to destroy any stone of the holy altar of the Temple. This prohibition also includes erasing the written name of the Almighty.
Rashi then quotes the opinion of Rebbe Yishmael. Rebbi Yishmael explains that the pasuk has a deeper meaning. Moshe is commanding Bnai Yisrael not to adopt the idolatrous practices of the nations they are soon to conquer. Ignoring this warning will result in retribution from Hashem. This punishment can result in the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash. In other words, Moshe is not merely prohibiting the direct destruction of the altar and Temple. He is urging the nation to guard its behavior and not indirectly destroy the Temple through idol worship.
Nachmanides comments on Rashi. He explains that Rebbi Yishmael is not disputing the simple meaning of the passage. He agrees that this pasuk prohibits the direct destruction of the altar or the erasure of the name of Hashem. However, he maintains that the pasuk has a second intention. Rebbe Yishmael identifies this second message. We should not conduct ourselves in a manner that can lead to the destruction of the Temple. However, this raises a question. According to Rebbe Yishmael, the pasuk has two messages. How are these two messages related? Why are they included in a single passage?
Maimonides provides an insight into this issue. Maimonides considers the prohibition against destruction of a stone of the altar or the erasure of Hashem’s name to be a negative command. It is interesting that he discusses this command in the very first section of his code – the Mishne Torah. He places this command directly after the prohibition against defiling Hashem’s name through inappropriate action – chillul Hashem. This juxtaposition indicates that Maimonides considers the destruction of the altar or the erasure of Hashem’s name to be an act of disrespect towards the Creator.
We can now answer our questions. Rebbe Yishmael is teaching us that the commission of a sin is a violation of one’s personal relationship with the Almighty. However, there is an additional harm caused by violation of the Torah. Hashem declared the Jewish people to be His chosen. This relationship is best demonstrated through the prosperity and success of Bnai Yisrael. When the Jewish people are punished, they are still the children of the omnipotent Almighty. However, this reality becomes less obvious. As a result there is room for a terrible chillul Hashem. Skeptics will ask, “Where is the omnipotent Jewish G-d, now?”
This is the second message of the pasuk according to Rebbe Yishmael. We must recognize the significance of our actions. Our obedience to the Torah results in success and prosperity. The name of Hashem is sanctified. Our disregard of the mitzvot results in our exile and oppression. This is a desecration of the Almighty’s name.
“This you should do only at the place that Hashem your G-d will choose from among all of you tribes to place His name there. His presence you should seek and you should come there.” (Devarim 12:5)
Moshe explains that once Bnai Yisrael occupies the land of Israel the Bait HaMikdash will be established. The worship of the nation will be centered on the Holy Temple. Moshe explains that the people will offer their sacrifices at the Bait HaMikdash.
Our passage tells us that we should seek Hashem at the Bait HaMikdash. The simple meaning of this statement is that the Temple should be a center of worship. Nachmanides understands this phrase in a more literal sense. Jews from distant communities will travel to Bait HaMikdash. As they travel, they will need directions. They will ask, “Where is to road to the Holy Temple?” They will invite others to join in their pilgrimage. This asking for guidance is the “seeking” to which the pasuk refers.
If we understand the comments of Nachmanides in a literal sense an implication can be made. Apparently, no elaborate measures are taken to mark the road to the Bait HaMikdash. Instead, travelers are force to rely on the directions provided through encounters along the route. This seems odd. It would seem appropriate to carefully mark the roads leading to the Temple.
This contrasts with the requirement for Arei Miklat – cities of refuge. These cities are provided as safe havens for a person who accidentally takes a life. In the case of such a tragedy, the killer is required to take refuge in one of a group of specially designated cities. He must remain in one of these cities for an indefinite period of time. The relatives of the victim have the court’s authority to execute the murderer if he or she is found outside of the city. Therefore, the murderer must quickly travel to one of the Arei Miklat. In order to facilitate the killer’s escape, the roads to the Arei Miklat are carefully marked. Why are the roads to the Arei Miklat carefully indicated but the route to the Temple neglected?
The comments of Nachmanides seem to provide a hint. As explained above, the simple meaning of our passage is that the Bait HaMikdash should be the center of worship. It is there that the Divine presence should be sought. Nachmanides is not rejecting this interpretation of the passage. He is suggesting that the pasuk has an additional meaning. It is reasonable to assume that Nachmanides’ interpretation is somehow related to the simple meaning of the pasuk. What is this connection?
Perhaps, Nachmanides’ interpretation is an elaboration of the simple meaning of the pasuk. The pasuk tells us that the Bait HaMikdash must be established as the center for worship. Nachmanides suggests that the pasuk also provides a means for accomplishing this objective. No signs are to be posted marking the way. Travelers are forced to rely on those they encounter on their pilgrimage. Through asking directions, they publicize the purpose of their trip. They emphasize the importance of the Mikdash. Others are encouraged to accompany these pilgrims. This process accomplishes the objective outlined in the simple message of the pasuk. The centrality of the Temple is firmly established.
The Midrash supports this interpretation. The Navi explains, in Shemuel I, that Elkanah – the father of Shemuel – traveled to the Mishcan in Shiloh at regular times. Before the construction of the Bait HaMikdash the Mishcan in Shiloh was the central location for worship. The Midrash explains that Elkanah would take his entire family with him. He was careful to make himself and his family conspicuous. He invited questions regarding his destination. The questions would come. Elkanah would respond with a short discourse on the importance of the Mishcan as a central institution of Bnai Yisrael. He would invite these inquirers to accompany him. The Midrash further comments that each year Elkanah would travel by a different road. His purpose was to encourage a new group to join his pilgrimage.
According to our interpretation of Nachmanides’ comments we can readily understand Elkanah’s behavior. He was fulfilling the directions of our pasuk. The passage essentially instructs us to use the journey to the Bait HaMikdash or Mishcan as an opportunity to promote the importance of these institutions. Our pasuk suggests that this be accomplished through requiring the pilgrims to seek directions. Elkanah devised additional means to effectively use his journey to emphasize the importance of the Mishcan.
This answers our question. There would be a practical benefit in marking the road to the Bait HaMikdash. However, an overriding consideration dictated that this not be done. The Torah wants the person traveling to the Bait HaMikdash to share with others the purpose of the journey. Through leaving the road unmarked the circumstances are created for interaction between the pilgrim and others. As a result the importance of the Bait HaMikdash is emphasized.
“And you shall eat there before Hashem your G-d. And you shall rejoice for all efforts – you and your households with which Hashem will bless you.” (Devarim 12:7)
Moshe tells the people that they will rejoice in the service of Hashem. Sforno comments that Moshe is referring to a person who serves Hashem out of love. Such a person will feel a sense of joy. In other words, one who loves the Almighty experiences a sense of inner happiness.
Why does the love of Hashem result in this inner joy? This seems to contradict a basic assumption of the Torah. Hashem punished Adam and Chava for eating from the Tree of Life. One aspect of this punishment was that humanity would toil for its sustenance. It seems that a certain level of pain and discomfort is a fundamental aspect of human existence. Is a person who loves Hashem exempt from this curse?
Maimonides discusses the mitzvah of loving Hashem in his Mishne Torah. In that discussion he describes the intensity of this adoration. He comments that the love of Hashem should be all-consuming. He compares the intensity of this love to the infatuation of romance. Envision a person who is deeply involved in romantic relationship. This person’s thoughts and feelings are fixated upon the romantic partner. All consideration for one’s self becomes secondary. The needs and desires of the loved one become primary.
This explanation of loving Hashem underlies Maimonides’ analysis of another mitzvah. The Torah prohibits us from seeking revenge. What is the basis for this mitzvah? Maimonides explains that the desire for revenge is an expression of inappropriate priorities. If a person insults us or causes us some material harm, we should not feel the need to seek revenge. No major harm has been caused. Our desire for revenge is merely the result of an overestimation of the damage caused to us. If we recognize the insignificance of the material world, we will not feel compelled to seek vengeance. We should not place too high a value on the material world.
This interpretation of the prohibition against seeking vengeance is consistent with Maimonides’ comments on love of Hashem. We are commanded to love the Almighty. This love should be the center of our attention. We should not be overly fixated upon material concerns. A person who achieves this elevated spiritual plane will not seek revenge. The material world becomes a petty consideration. It does not deserve our attention.
It is important to note that the prohibition against vengeance recognizes that we may not be on this spiritual level. We may be deeply angered by personal attacks or material harm. Nonetheless, the Torah requires that we forsake the desire to avenge ourselves. In observing this command, we recognize the innate insignificance of the material world. We may feel anger but we acknowledge that this is a subjective personal reaction. It is not a reflection of the true reality.
We are now prepared to understand Sforno’s comments. Hashem cursed the material world. As a result of this curse, we must struggle to sustain ourselves. In addition, as we attempt to indulge our material desires we experience frustrations. We decide to go on a vacation. Our car breaks down. We buy a new car, and a week latter someone accidentally scratches it. These mishaps are programmed into the material world. They are the consequence of the curse. Involvement in the material world is fraught with disappointment and frustration.
Sforno is explaining that the one who loves Hashem can avoid many of consequences of this curse. This person is not concerned with the material wold and self-indulgence. This is the reason that one who loves Hashem does not seek vengeance. Instead, this individual is absorbed in an intense love. One’s attention is directed towards the Almighty. These material frustrations are of minor concern. There is not reason to become disproportionately upset over the petty issues of our material existence. Therefore, Sforno concludes that one who loves Hashem will experience ongoing happiness. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 12:4.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 12:4.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 12:5.  Mesechet Makkot 10a.  Rabbaynu Shimon HaDarshan of Frankfort, Yalkut Shimoni, Sefer Shemuel I, chapter 1.  Thank you to Rav Binyamin Nadoff for providing most of this material. Rav Nadoff attributed the basic insight to the Chafetz Chayim.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 12:7.  Sefer Beresheit 3:17-19.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 10:3.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Dayot 7:7.