by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"If you will follow My decrees and observe My Commandments and perform them..." [26:3]
The Torah reading this week begins with a blessing, in which G-d promises
us that the land of Israel will be fruitful and peaceful. But as Rashi
(Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) notes, the first sentence appears to have a
redundancy. Once we are told to observe the Commandments - which covers all
types of Mitzvos, why is it necessary to also specify following the decrees?
His answer is that "following" indicates pursuit [see the Sifsei
Chachamim]. He explains that "following the decrees" means becoming deeply
involved in Torah studies - pursuing knowledge. Rashi then goes on to
explain that the juxtaposition of the two indicates that we should learn in
order to properly fulfill our obligations. But I would like to explore an
alternative explanation for why these two appear together.
Later in the parsha, we read one of two troubling passages of curses, which
G-d promises will befall the people of Israel should they abandon Him. Our
Sages tell us that the two passages were realized with the destruction of
the two Temples, each of which stood for over 400 years - and they analyzed
the behavior of the Jewish nation, and explained in what ways they had
abandoned G-d in each case. Concerning the First Temple, they said that
Israel had violated the three "cardinal sins," for which one should sooner
give up his or her life than betray: idol worship, forbidden sexual
relations, and murder. Concerning the Second, they explained that Israel
was observing the Commandments, but needless hatred brought down the Temple.
Clearly, the promises of blessing given at the beginning of the parsha are
the opposite of the curses which follow. The opposite of violating the
three cardinal sins is also obvious: observing them! And if one is careful
to observe all the Commandments, then he or she will certainly observe
these three as well. So thus we understand why G-d promises His blessings
if we observe the Commandments - for we see that it was the complete
abandonment of them which caused the destruction of the First Temple.
I would argue that each of the two phrases in the first verse is intended
to oppose destruction: just as observance of all the Commandments is
intended to ensure behavior which is the opposite of violating the three
cardinal sins, deep involvement in Torah study is intended to produce the
opposite of needless hatred. What is the opposite of needless hatred?
In the second chapter of the Sayings of the Fathers, we learn that Rabban
Yochanon ben Zakkai, the leading teacher of his time, had five students -
and he told them, go out and see what path a person should follow. Rebbe
Elazar said that a person should have "a good heart" - and Rebbe Yochanon
said that this was the best answer, for it included all the goals expressed
by the others.
So Rebbe Yochanon, the leading scholar of his day, indicated that a good
heart was the greatest attribute for a person to have. And Hillel also said
there, in Chapter 1, "love all creatures, and bring them closer to Torah."
The study of Torah is supposed to bring us to a warm heart, overflowing
with love. As we study, let us work to bring this to fruition - and the
blessings will follow.
Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis,
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.