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Parashat 07/30/2010

Parashat Ekev
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Much of our Parashah is an exhortation by Moshe Rabbeinu to the nation to obey Gd’s commandments, so that we may enjoy the benefits, as we read in chapter 11 (which also forms the 2nd paragraph of the Sh’ma):

I will give you your rains in their appropriate time, the former rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain and your wine and your oil … and you will eat and be satisfied.

Interestingly, in this and in many other passages, the Torah emphasizes the material benefits of mitzvot.  Yet our Sages tell us that the primary benefit of the mitzvot is spiritual elevation, and that in fact “there is no reward for the mitzvot in this world.”  The Gaon of Vilna explains “…because there is nothing in this world that is a suitable recompense.”  In other words, the mitzvot are spiritual practices, rooted in the infinite, non-material source of all material creation, and transcend the material world’s poor power to give real pleasure.

The first verse of Chapter 8, and Malbim’s commentary to it, can perhaps provide some insight into this conundrum:

The entire mitzvah that I command you today, take care to perform, so that you may live and expand and come [into] and inherit the Land which H” swore to your forefathers.

Note that the expression is “The entire mitzvah” in the singular rather than “All the mitzvot” in the plural.  Malbim says:

Wise men have tried to figure out why Adam and Noach were fulfilled with 7 commandments and were able to reach perfection (or wholeness), but 613 commandments had to be added to Israel, as if they would be unable to reach wholeness without this greatly increased service.  Some of the sages said that this [the extra mitzvot] actually makes it easier to reach wholeness, like a physician who gives one medicine to a sick person, while another physician tells him “take this one or that one” – it’s easier to be cured by the second one, because if he can’t find the first medicine he just takes the second.  But the analogy isn’t apt, because H” didn’t say “do this mitzvah or that one” – rather He said to do them all and therefore it’s actually harder to reach wholeness, for at first it only took 7 mitzvot and after that [He] added extra service for them.  But the answer is that the levels of perfection are not comparable: the perfection of the 7 mitzvot [commanded to Adam and Noach] only creates wholeness in the life of this world, and in the realm of proper behavior.  But the wholeness that one achieves by fulfilling the Torah’s mitzvot is eternal and on the level of Divinity.  And there is a similar distinction between Eretz Yisrael and the rest of the world.  For in Eretz Yisrael one is obligated in the mitzvot that depend on the Land, and therefore one can achieve a greater level of wholeness, because Eretz Yisrael is a Land which is prepared for prophecy and closeness to the Shechinah, and to a miraculous style of life.  For this one needs a greater level of service, for to achieve a greater level of wholeness requires a greater level of service.  Therefore it says “All the commandment that I command you this day, be careful to do.”  In other words, don’t think that I gave you many mitzvot so that you can pick one mitzvah for yourself like the second physician in the analogy.  Rather you have to fulfill it all; therefore mitzvah is singular, for all the mitzvot are integrated as if they are all one mitzvah; they are all bound to each other.

We generally think of the mitzvot as disconnected performances or prohibitions, each a world unto itself.  Many people feel an affinity to a particular mitzvah and may focus on performing that mitzvah as perfectly as possible, while performing the others in “merely” an acceptable manner.  In fact, many of our Rabbis have suggested such a practice as a stepping-stone toward overall enhanced mitzvah performance.  It appears however that, according to Malbim, Torah is telling us that in fact all the mitzvot are equally important and attention must be paid to all.  How can we reconcile these two approaches?

It is certainly true that the Torah is an integrated whole, and we are certainly not free to pick and choose which mitzvot we will perform and which we will ignore (see Rashi’s comment to the first verse of our Parashah by the way for another angle on this concept).  Rambam tells us that one who says he accepts the whole except for one verse is considered as if he had denied the Divinity of the entire Torah.  If the Torah is Divine and perfect, it cannot be added to nor detracted from without damaging its essential unity, as we learned last week: “You shall not add to it, nor shall you subtract from it.”  On the other hand, people are all different, and it is perfectly natural that different people will be attracted to one part of Torah more than another.  Since the Torah is Divine and perfect, it has something that is congenial for everyone.

Perhaps the best analogy would be to a hologram.  A hologram is a piece of photographic film that contains a representation of an image taken not in ordinary light, but rather in laser light.  The film actually contains a record of the interference pattern of the coherent laser light as it bounces off different parts of the object, and when another laser is shined through the hologram, the original, 3-dimensional visual field is reproduced.  The hologram contains an integrated representation of the entire object.  What is remarkable about a hologram is that if we cut it in pieces and shine a laser through any piece of the film, we reproduce the full image of the original object.  The complete, integrated value of the object is present in every little piece of the hologram!

I believe the integrated structure of our Torah may be understood somewhat as a “holographic” structure.  The purpose of the Torah that we were given is to raise our finite lives to the level of infinity.  To do so, Torah’s structure must encompass infinity.   To add anything to Torah or to take anything away from Torah would be like changing the basic pattern on the hologram; it would distort the image beyond recognition.  On the other hand, every little bit of infinity is just as infinite, just as integrated, as the “whole” infinity.  In the same way, each and every mitzvah that we perform has infinite value, infinite worth, and can raise our individual existence up to Divine, universal existence.  Truly there is nothing in this world that can begin to recompense us for performing the Will of our Creator with joy and with awe!  May it be Gd’s Will for us that we all come to know true simchah shel mitzvah, the joy of doing Gd’s Will out of our intense love for Gd.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 19

Any love that depends on something, when that thing ceases, the love will cease.  But if it is not dependent on anything, it will never cease.

Although the Mishnah gives as an example of a love that depends on something the “love” (actually lust) of Amnon for his half-sister Tamar, we might also interpret this in terms of our love for Gd.  Do we love Gd because He provides for us, and gives us “the rain in its time”?  Or do we love Gd because he is our infinite, loving Father/Mother Who has given us life and sustained us and created a fabulous world in which we can grow close to Him?  Do we perform Gd’s commandments because He promises us a reward, or do we perform Gd’s commandments because we are totally thrilled to have the opportunity to serve Him?  Perhaps the ultimate love that does not depend on anything is love of Gd that springs out of a closeness that as it were borders on identification with Gd.  When we reach a state of consciousness where our mind is fully expanded, where our every perception is of the integrated whole, then perhaps we can say that we love Gd with no motive at all, in the same way that we love ourself.  This merging of infinities is truly eternal – it will never cease.