The Spice Of Life
"You shall place these words of Mine upon your heart..." (11:18)
In the second portion of the Krias Shema, we find the instruction to
constantly contemplate and internalize the Torah and its precepts. The
Talmud interprets the word "vesamtem" - "you shall place" as "vesam tam" -
"a perfect elixir"; the Torah is the ideal cure for the "yetzer hara" -
"evil inclination". The following analogy is offered by the Talmud: A father
educating his child finds it necessary to strike him. The father then
instructs his child to place a compress on the inflicted wound, saying to
his son "As long as the compress is in place, you may eat and drink what you
desire, you may bathe with hot or cold water, and you need not fear that
your wounds will become infected. However, if you remove the compress, your
health is at risk." Similarly, Hashem says "My son, I created the evil
inclination and I created the Torah as its 'tavlin' - 'antidote'"
We generally understand that Hashem created the Torah for man to follow,
with the yetzer hara as the obstacle which man must overcome in his pursuit
of Torah study and adherence. However, from the aforementioned passage in
the Talmud, we see that this perception is not entirely correct. The Sages
of the Talmud describe the Torah as a "tavlin" - literally, "condiment" or
"spice" used to enhance the flavor of the main course. It would appear that
the primary creation is the yetzer hara, with the Torah being the necessary
but secondary creation. This notion is substantiated by the parable given in
the Talmud; the child's punishment, which is analogous to the yetzer hara,
is a necessary facet of his education, while the compress serves as the
counterbalance or antidote which prevents the beating from having a negative
consequence. How do we understand the idea that the Torah is merely the
spice that enhances the yetzer hara's natural flavors? The Talmud states
that the yetzer hara threatens to overpower a person every day and kill
him. What function of the yetzer hara makes its existence necessary?
Hashem created man with an enormous potential for accomplishment. Man's
overwhelming awareness of his capabilities, coupled with the fear that he
may not be able to live up to his potential, leads him on a path of
self-destruction. Man indulges in behaviors which either block out the
awareness of his capabilities, or demean him to the extent that he can
rationalize that the expectations of him are unfounded..
The part within us which makes us aware of our potential is the yetzer hara.
Left unharnessed, this awareness develops into man's most destructive force,
the destruction he wreaks upon himself. The Torah is the tool through which
we can actualize and develop our potential. Without the yetzer hara making
us aware of our potential, the Torah's capacity to actualize and develop
that potential would not be utilized. Our Sages therefore confer upon the
yetzer hara the significance of being Hashem's primary creation for without
the aspirations of what he can become man's potential would be wasted.
"This shall be the reward when you listen..." (7:12)
The simple interpretation of the verse is that if we observe the ordinances
of Hashem, we will be rewarded and He will love us. However, Rashi
interprets the verse midrashically. The word "eikev" means "heel". The verse
is referring specifically to those mitzvos which we trample underfoot, for
we perceive them to be less important. The Mizrachi questions the need
for Rashi's interpretation, especially since the Midrash apparently
contradicts the simple interpretation. The simple interpretation implies
that the verse refers to all ordinances. Rashi limits the verse to only
those which we perceive as less important.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos warns us to be as meticulous in our observance of
the less important mitzvos as we are in the more important mitzvos, for we
do not know on what basis we are being rewarded. If it is possible to
distinguish between less important and more important mitzvos, why, in fact,
are we not rewarded more for those which are more important?
The stronger the relationship you have with a person, the more at ease you
are with asking him to do something which is relatively trivial. However, in
a relationship which is not so strong, you tend to limit requests to matters
of significance. For example, a person would not think twice about waking up
a mere acquaintance at two o' clock in the morning for medical assistance,
but the same person would find it inconceivable to wake up the acquaintance
asking for a pint of ice cream. On the other extreme, a woman will have no
problem with asking her husband to buy her a pint of ice cream at two o'
clock in the morning.
We are naturally more meticulous with those precepts which we perceive to be
more fundamental. Moreover, for those precepts which Hashem commands us to
observe, in which we do not perceive any major fundamental principles, it is
possible to approach them with less enthusiasm. However, it is with these
very mitzvos that we show our commitment and express our love for Hashem.
The stronger the relationship, the more apt one is to acquiesce to a
seemingly trivial request. Therefore, our observance of "themitzvos
kalos",the less serious mitzvos, is the yardstick for our relationship with
With this, we can understand what the Mishna in Pirkei Avos is teaching us.
We do not know on what basis we are rewarded for observance of the precepts,
whether it is the gravity of the precept or the reflection of commitment and
love in adherence of the precept. The Midrash understands that these are the
precepts which the verse is alluding to, for the verse is referring to those
mitzvos for which we are rewarded with Hashem's love. This must be because
those mitzvos express our love for Hashem. This, the Midrash explains, must
be the mitzvos which are perceived to be less important, for our observance
of them truly expresses our love for Hashem.