Weekly Torah Commentary – Eikev August 19, 2011

Parshat Eikev begins with a familiar phrasing:

And it will be because you heed these judgments, and safeguard and do them, that the Eternal, your Almighty God shall safeguard and uphold with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers. (Deuteronomy 7:12)

Man is commanded to follow the commandments and to obey the Word of God. This is far from unusual; such statements are to be found many times in the Torah, and in the book of Deuteronomy in particular.

In simple words, could the text just say:When you behave as I have commanded, the desired result will surely follow.”

There are different ways to view the observance of mitzvot.  Sometimes, certain commandments are neglected because they are perceived as less important.   In the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) however, we are cautioned:

…and be careful with a light precept as with a grave one, for you do not know the (calculation) of reward [for the fulfillment] of the mitzvot. (Mishna Avot 2:1)

A second concern is that mitzvot can be observed out of rote but without proper intention or devotion; these are mitzvot which a person may fulfill out of habit or because ‘everybody does it this way’ yet have no personal inner commitment to Hashem in the doing of the mitzvot.

A third consideration centers around the intent of the person who fulfills the mitzva: The mitzva is performed, intentionally, but for the wrong reason.  Particular deeds can be performed for reasons of altruism, or out of some sort of self-serving motivation but without any inner desire to show one’s love for Hashem through obedience.  How is such an action to be judged? What is the nature and status of such behavior?

The Sages have written that a mitzva is only a mitzva if the person performing the act believes he was commanded to do so and desires to follow Hashem’s command. In the literal sense, the word mitzva means “command.” It therefore stands to reason that a person who behaves in accordance with a Torah law but does not believe himself to be fulfilling a precise and specific command, is not, in fact, performing a “mitzva.”

The question of the intention in fulfilling mitzvot is treated extensively in various Talmudic discussions, but the basic premise is whether or not the person performing the act believes in God and Torah.

We may better understand this in terms of our more familiar relationships: Do behaviors in interpersonal relationships require intentional effort, or is the “bottom line” what is important? If we imagine a husband handing his wife flowers, but telling her at that very moment that he does not, nor has he ever, had any feelings for her, would she still be happy to receive the flowers?   Analogously, the sages of the Talmud debated whether any specific act requires active attention and intention, or if an absent-minded gesture is acceptable. Does the husband buy flowers out of habit? Is that enough of a reason? Or is it truly an act of love and devotion towards his wife?

Rabbi Menachem Twersky, founder of the Chernobyl dynasty (1730-1797) wrote about this in a way that truly resonated with me.  He said that the word ‘mitzva’ connotes more than “command”; he saw within it the word ‘b’tzavta’, which means togetherness and concluded: Every mitzva fulfilled is a point of connection between He who commands and we who are commended and who acquiesce. The result of fulfilling a mitzva is togetherness – what we have referred to elsewhere as ‘a rendezvous with God’.

Seen from this perspective, the question is one of closeness, of communication, and there is no communication when the person performing the act does not believe in God, does not believe that God has spoken, does not believe that God takes an interest in human behavior. It is impossible to perform a mitzva if there is no awareness of God’s involvement in our lives; as impossible as the sound of one hand clapping, it is just as impossible to have a rendezvous of one.

To embrace Hashem’s commandments is a matter of active listening and taking in;  not merely passive hearing.  We are to forge a powerful, reciprocal, eternal relationship – by accepting God as King and accepting our own role as His servants.  The type of listening called for here invites us to be sensitive to even the “minor” commandments, as servants of the King. This type of rapt attention transforms actions that we might well have performed otherwise, or actions that we might otherwise perform without conviction, zeal, or full attention,- into powerful religious experience.

It is this approach to the mitzvot that is our acknowledgement of our relationship with God, and it is this attentiveness that creates the meeting point for our rendezvous with God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This attentiveness infuses every act, no matter how small and routine, with supreme significance, for we are in the service of the King.

Every commandment becomes a privilege, a sign of the trust the King has in each of his faithful servants, and an opportunity to repay that trust, deepen that trust, and become worthy of that relationship. That is why we are instructed to hear and listen specifically to the “small,” “mundane” mitzvot: When we hear in this way, allowing ourselves to concentrate on the significance of each mitzva with which we have been entrusted and reminding ourselves that these are opportunities to reach out to God who has spoken to us, no commandment will ever seem “small.”

In Tune with Torah this week = adjusting our perspective to recognize that the commandments are not to be ‘judged’ by our perceptions of their importance or non-importance.  It is not WHAT G-d said, but THAT He said it that matters to the one who deeply loves Him.

Shabbat Shalom


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