This shall be your reward when you hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them…
Is this a reversal of past policy? Moshe here continues his final words of encouragement to the people before he dies. He describes a generous compensation package for hearkening, observing, and performing. No complaints there. But Moshe has been revisiting the events of the previous forty years, trying to prevent them from both repeating the mistakes as well as forgetting about their moments of triumph. This doesn’t quite fit in.
Something is missing here. What happened to naaseh v’nishmah/ we will do and we will listen, the greatest response in all of Jewish history? Why doesn’t Moshe give that top billing, rather than settling for hearkening, observing, and performing?
There is shomayim, and there is aretz – Heaven and earth. Life as we know it requires both, operating cooperatively. Similarly, there is the neshamah and the body. They, too, are necessary, and work interactively. That interaction – even for the accomplishment of good – can work in two directions. The straightforward way is for shomayim to directly rule aretz, and for the neshamah to dictate to the body. The reverse can also take place. Events on earth can stimulate a reaction in Heaven; the actions of the body can inspire and ignite the neshamah.
The earth was created to be deficient relative to the absolute perfection of shomayim. It is a place in which there will be ugliness in Nature; where thorns and thistles sprout; where disease is rampant. The direction of influence of neshamah to guf is dispositive. When the activity of the neshamah must be awakened first by the work of the guf, a person does not escape the vicissitudes of a petulant Nature. If, however, the direction is reversed, and the neshamah directly initiates all action, then the person escapes the disabilities of a deficient world.
We were not designed to live a monastic life, shunning all connection to the physical. Hashem’s plan for us, however, may not be any easier. His will is that in the connection between shomayim and aretz, and between neshamah and guf, that all should be dictated by the higher element. When the neshamah directly controls all aspects of the guf, all of a person’s desires and emotions connect entirely to the permissible and to the mitzvah. The person feels no desire for anything mildly improper, let alone forbidden. (This is the nature of the neshamah yeseirah / the “extra soul” that we receive on Shabbos. This allows that all of our interest in food and drink on Shabbos is sourced in the neshamah, not the guf. Some special people merit that this neshamah yeseirah never takes leave of them, and they utilize it during the days of the week as well.)
Arguably, we have not all arrived at the place of neshamah-prominence that Hashem wants for us. Captive as we are, therefore, to the vagaries of the guf, we are at risk of drowning entirely within its demands. For this reason, Hashem designed yesurim – the march of challenges and pains that often besets us. Those pains refine and purify us, so that we do not become lost in our physicality.
If the description of neshamah-prominence sounds vaguely familiar, it should. We were there once before. This prominence is one of the implications of naasheh v’nishmah. It means that everything that we do – naaseh – results from a Heavenly voice that speaks to him. It is a level at which there are no lesser determinants of a person’s behavior. Everything is communicated from the neshamah, and the neshamah alone. (In the future, when we regain this madregah, everything within us – what we do and what we think – will flow from a prophetic voice from Above. Each person will find new mitzvos communicated from on High, that pertain to him and him alone.)
The opening of our parshah speaks to a more familiar, albeit it less lofty, reality. Prior to this point, Moshe revisited the unfortunate (and often tragic) mistakes that the people had made over the last four decades. It is possible, he reasons, that holding themselves to be on a higher plane than they really were contributed to their errors. Too many, perhaps, remembered the hour of naasheh v’nishmah, and could not imagine themselves climbing down from there. In fact, they had attained that madregah only for a short while. Aiming for a much higher madregah than they were now on, required skipping intermediate steps. Such skipping leaves people vulnerable to falling far below where they started, when their jump misses the point they intended to land.
Moshe offers an alternative. “This shall be your reward when you hearken…” If you can’t operate on the plane of naasheh v’nishmah, Moshe tells them, then at least retain the nishmah! Hearken to the authentic voice of halacha, from whatever source it comes. Listen to the instruction of the Torah, even if it comes from places within the earthly, and responding to the demands of the guf. If you do, the reward will be full and rich.
Are you embarrassed by this? Do you think that you are utter failures, since the ultimate Jewish mission is specifically to live on the naasheh v’nishmah plane? That Jews were intended to demonstrate that shomayim and the neshamah could control all, dictate all, are all, without translating their message into the language of the pedestrian and ordinary? Don’t sell yourselves short, says Moshe. “You will be the most blessed of all the peoples.” This means that outsiders looking in will bless you, will understand your accomplishment. Nations that cannot begin to relate to naasheh v’nishmah do understand that Man is to hearken, to listen, to obey. They don’t have such a successful time even with that. Some have argued that it is impossible.
By your hearkening to listen, you will demonstrate that Man indeed can live by the Law, in a close relationship with its Giver.