Friday, August 14, 2009

Re'ei 5631 Sixth Ma'amar

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה/See, I have placed before you this day, blessing and curse.” (Devarim 11:26) Subsequent pesukim explain that the blessing is contingent upon our accepting God’s mitzvos whereas the curse is contingent upon rejecting them. The Seforno[1] makes this very clear. He says that those who keep the mitzvos will be blessed. Those who transgress will be cursed.

These are very powerful statements that leave no room for a middle ground. Either we accept the yoke of heaven in everything we do, deliver ourselves to the one God and be blessed or we do not and be cursed.

The Sfas Emes understands this concept also from the word לִפְנֵיכֶם/before you. The Sfas Emes understands the word, לִפְנֵיכֶם/before you, according to the holy Rav of Parshischa’s[2] understanding of the same word at the beginning of parshas Mishpatim. The first pasuk of Mishpatim is, “וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם/And these are the laws that you will place before them.” (Shmos 21:1) The question the Rav of Parshischa addresses is the use of the word, לִפְנֵיהֶם/before them instead of simply saying these are the laws that you will teach them. The commentaries address this question as well. The Parshischer, though, offers a novel interpretation. He explains.

The Rav of Parshischa notes the difference between humans and angels. Our existence is not dependent upon Torah and the mitzvos. There are plenty of people who neither study Torah nor perform mitzvos yet they exist. Angels’ existence, though, is directly tied to the fulfillment of God’s commandments. Angels are created when we perform mitzvos.

Although our existence is not contingent upon studying Torah and performing mitzvos, Torah scholars understand that life without Torah and mitzvos is hardly worthwhile. Torah scholars therefore have an aspect of the angel in their own lives. When God tells Moshe to place the laws before the nation, He is teaching us that just as performance of mitzvos precedes the existence of angels – they only come into existence after mitzvos are performed – so too, do the Torah’s laws precede our existence. Although we live even if we do not perform mitzvos, living a life that is worthwhile, that is meaningful is predicated upon the performance of Torah and mitzvos.

The Sfas Emes understands, לִפְנֵיכֶם/before you in the first pasuk of our parsha in the same vein. Meaning in our lives stems from the choice between accepting the yoke of heaven or rejecting it. In the words of the Parshischer, the choice comes before our (meaningful) existence because a meaningful life is predicated upon it. If we choose to accept the yoke of heaven, we give meaning to our lives and are blessed. If we do not, we do not give meaning to our lives. The result is curse.

The Sfas Emes also understands the first pasuk of our parsha, according to its plain meaning, that God wants us to discern before we decide to act, whether the action we are about to do is a choice for blessing or not.

What happens though when we honestly do not know? Far from being an uncommon situation, for thinking people who truly want to do the right thing, this may be the most common of situations. What to do? The Sfas Emes teaches that awareness of the choice and making sure that our motives are pure is a key to gaining clarity. We need to take pause before any action and just contemplate it for a few moments.

He learns this from the Ba'al Shem Tov as quoted in Kesser Shem Tov[3]. The Ba'al Shem Tov explained the pasuk, "וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו ... /… Any matter that is difficult for you, bring it to me and I will hear it." (Devarim 1:17) Conventionally, Moshe Rabbeinu is telling judges that they can come to him for the resolution of issues that are too difficult for them.

The Ba'al Shem Tov, though, had a tradition that the Ramban explained this pasuk to his son homiletically as referring to someone in a quandary, someone who is faced with a choice and honestly does not know which path to take. God says, "תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי/Bring it to me." Remove any self bias. Make sure your motives are pure. If you do this then, וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו/I will hear it, implying understanding. God will give you understanding and you will know how to act. May we merit it!

[1] Devarim 11:29

[2] Kol Simcha Mishpatim, starting Ve’Eileh HaMishpatim

[3] Kesser Shem Tov 6, Kehot Publication Society edition 5764


Anonymous said...

Thank You!

elaz said...

It's a nice interpretation but how do you understand these pesukim at a basic level? We all know people who (apparently) follow the torah but aren't blessed while others who don't "accept the yolk of heaven" seem to live wonderful lives. I find it difficult to believe that no non believers have meaningful lives.


Moshe David Tokayer said...

If I understand your comment correctly, you are addressing two issues. First, how do we understanding the pasuk at a basic level. The problem of evil seems to contradict the pasuk. We all know righteous people who suffer and others who are not righteous who are doing quite well.

Second, there seem to be plenty of people who do not observe the mitzvos who are leading meaningful lives.

Regarding the first issue, the problem of evil is an important issue to understand. There are other difficulties with this pasuk as well. One is that blessing and curse are not defined. Your question is based on an assumed definition of blessing and curse. The pasuk may mean something else.

For example, the Baalei Tosfos explain that the blessing and curse are not referring to what happens in this lifetime at all. Rather it is referring to ultimate reward and punishment after death. If this is in fact what the pasuk means, then it is not addressing the problem of evil at all.

Regarding your second issue, whether believing in God is a prerequisite for leading a meaningful life, it's important to note that the Sfas Emes is not making a blanket statement about all non-observant people. His words need to be understood within the context of the pasuk.

The context of the pasuk is a choice and we are talking about people who make that choice either accepting or rejecting the Torah and the mitzvos. The Sfas Emes's argument is that one who chooses to reject the Torah and mitzvos has missed the boat, so to speak.

elaz said...

Thank you for elaborating. My difficulty is that it's hard to understand the pasuk unless, like the baalei tosofos, it is referring to the world to come. However the torah doesn't normally discuss such things as the afterlife. Bracha is usually referring to good rain, healthy babies, bountiful crops, etc.

Maybe we could understand it at a more kabbalistic level. When we do good we create bracha, i.e. we bring virtue into the world. And, if we don't follow hashem's way then ch'v we bring evil into the world. It isn't a tit for tat with g-d, such that if we're good we will be rewarded and visa versa. Rather, as human beings we have the ability through our bechira to directly affect the balance of bracha and klala in the world. This doesn't explain the pashtus of the pasuk, but it's another way of looking at it. Thanks again.

Moshe David Tokayer said...

And thank you for your insight!