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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

And You Shall Live By Them1

The Torah requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice in very few circumstances. When confronted with a conflict between observance of Halachah and the preservation of our existence, a derashah based on a pasuk in our parshah instructs us opt for life. “‘And he shall live by them’2 – and not die by them.”3

Onkelos, however, takes a very different position. Rather than apply it as the Gemara does to the way we live, Onkelos (echoed by Rashi) sees in it a reference to the way we exist after we die. The life mentioned by the pasuk is the eternal life of olam habah. It is mystifying that the two derashos are not only different, but almost contradictory. Onkelos’ approach is troublesome in and of itself. We are warned4 not to serve Hashem as do servants who expect reward from their master. Why would the Torah here encourage us to remember that we will be richly rewarded for our mitzvah observance in the next world?

There is no real tension between the approaches. Not only are they not mutually exclusive, but they are two sides of the same coin. Both approaches share a common element. We are instructed to observe the mitzvos with chiyus, with exuberance and vitality, eagerly throwing our entire being into the activity. The leshem yichud formula that we recite before the performance of a single, particular mitzvah mentions “the 613 mitzvos that are linked to it.” Each mitzvah touches and impacts all the others. The same idea can be applied to each individual. Even when he performs a mitzvah with a single part of his body, all other parts can and should become active and enthusiastic participants.

Onkelos’ approach rests upon the very same premise. One of the Karliners used to say that he came to understand how the Heavenly court deals with an enigmatic situation. How should a person be rewarded for scrupulously observing Shabbos, but finding no joy in it? The answer, it turns out, is that he is given a rich portion in Gan Eden in merit of his observance – but there, too, feels nothing.

The explanation is fairly straightforward. The joy that we feel in olam habah derives from and is an outgrowth of the joy that we feel in the performance of mitzvos in this world! (This identity holds for transgressions as well as mitzvos. The fire of gehinom derives primarily from the fiery passion for sin that burns within us in this world.)

The two approaches merge. We are instructed to find life in the mitzvos. They do not compel us to give up living; to the contrary, we find our real zeal for life within their observance. That zeal in turn shapes the quality of our eternal existence in olam haba.

The Torah sets the bar high. The beginning of the “live by them” verse underscores both chukim and mishpatim. Some can far more easily identify with mishpatim, whose inner sense seems logically accessible to us. We can relate better to these mitzvos, and devote ourselves to them more fully, since they appeal to us. The Torah, however, asks us to show the same alacrity in the performance of chukim, whose sense remains remote to us. This should not, however, detract from our joy. We can find supernal happiness simply in the opportunity to do His will. (The Dvar Shmuel finds an allusion to this in the Shabbos morning davening. “Tzahala v’rina l’zecher malchuso – there is jubilation and song in the mention of His kingship.” Our very ability to mention His kingship, to utter His Name in the context of a berachah, is cause for celebration!)

Earlier, we puzzled over the fact that by pointing to olam haba as the expected consequence of our performance of mitzvos, the Torah seems to encourage us to serve Hashem in the expectation of a rich reward. This runs counter to Chazal’s well enunciated rejection of such service. We now have our answer. In fact, the Torah does not promote mitzvah observance for the purpose of adding to our Heavenly account. We ought to push such considerations out of our mind, and respond to the command of our Creator. We are grateful that in His beneficence, He chooses to give us olam haba. Rather, our pasuk simply communicates to us that the quality of whatever olam haba we will receive is built upon the way we perform mitzvos. If our affect, the emotional component of our avodah is vibrant and spirited, so too will our experience of olam haba be that much more vital and alive.

Pondering a deep but familiar concept will provide another level of insight into our pasuk. The seforim hakedoshim tell us that this world’s function in a nutshell is a manifestation of Hashem’s goodness. Inherent in the very notion of being good is attempting to share that good with others. Applied to G-d Himself (in the very small way that we can apply our vocabulary and experiences to Him), we speak of His creating a world in order to share the ultimate good – His essence – with others, or the human creatures He created.

As important as goodness is to His nature, His being incorporates other characteristics as well, including a love of justice. Every aveirah we commit makes us less worthy of receiving His abundant blessings. It frustrates, as it were, His desire to shower us more and more goodness. When we do good, on the other hand, we play a role in the supporting of the entire purpose of creation. Our actions “enable,” as it were, Hashem to give us yet more of His blessing. (This thought clears up another mystery – why the second parshah of the Shema promises material benefit in return for our faithful performance of mitzvos. Here, too, we can read the Torah’s message in a different way. If we listen to Hashem and serve Him with love (as that parshah emphasizes), we fulfill the very purpose of Creation – “enabling” Him to bless us with abundant rains, etc. If instead we turn from Him, thwarting His purpose, we are no longer proper recipients of His blessing. It is then withheld – blocking His intention to send us a rich Divine Influence.)

Perhaps this is also the way we should understand Chazal’s pithy statement5 that one mitzvah pulls along the next. We usually understand this as meaning that the performance of a mitzvah makes it easier for us to do another, or leads to Divine assistance facilitating our future observance. Perhaps, though, Chazal mean something quite different. The performance of any mitzvah inexorably drags along another, specific mitzvah its wake. Each mitzvah accomplishes a second mitzvah: bringing “pleasure,” as it were to Hashem, whose sole objective in creating the world was to give us more and more pleasure!

This is also part of the meaning of our pasuk. When we live by the mitzvos, we bring pleasure to Hashem, Who follows up with more and more blessing, including the ultimate blessing of the closeness to Him known as olam haba.

1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 81-83
2 Vayikra 18:5
3 Yoma 85B
4 Avos 1:3
5 Avos 4:2

Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and