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Parashat 8/17/2011

Parashat Ekev

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

You shall place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul; you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm and let them be an ornament between your eyes.  (11:18)

Rashi: Even after you have been exiled, be distinguished (m’tzuyanim) by mitzvot: lay t’fillin, make mezuzot… so that they won’t be like something new to you when your return, as it says: “Erect signposts (tziyunim) for yourself… .” (Jeremiah 38:20).

Rashi almost makes it sound like the mitzvot are optional after the exile – that the only reason we perform mitzvot is some sort of a nostalgia for a long-bygone ethnic identity, so that if by some miracle we could return to the Land and reconstitute our national existence there, we’d still be “in practice.”  Yet we know that this is not the case – except for the agricultural mitzvot that depend on the Land itself, all the mitzvot are absolutely obligatory on us outside the Land of Israel as they are in it.  How are we to understand this Rashi?  Furthermore, what does it mean “erect signposts”?


I think this question gives us an insight into the special nature of the Land of Israel, and the special nature of the People of Israel, and the special nature of the bond between the Land of Israel, the People of Israel and the Gd of Israel.  Since this very relationship is currently under attack by the Palestinians and their sympathizers, it is important for us to understand just how deep the connection goes.


Our Sages tell us that the Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov “kept the entire Torah, even before it was given.”  Apparently their spiritual stature was such that they were able to intuit Gd’s Will, which would later be given to us explicitly, in both written form and orally, at Mt. Sinai.  Yet there are some glaring counterexamples as well.  For example, the Torah specifically prohibits marrying one’s wife’s sister “in her lifetime.”  Even if you divorce the first sister, the second sister is forbidden to you while your ex-wife is still alive.  Yet we find Ya’akov Avinu married to Leah and Rachel simultaneously.  The contradiction is explained thus: Ya’akov was married to the two sisters, but only outside the Land of Israel.  Once they returned to the Land, in fact, Rachel died, leaving only Leah.  Our Sages explain that upon entering the Land, the increased level of holiness could not support Ya’akov’s domestic arrangements; presumably since, as a result of Lavan’s machinations, Leah was the first wife, Ya’akov’s beloved Rachel had to be the one to pass on.  Indeed, Leah is the wife who is buried with Ya’akov in the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron, while Rachel is buried “on the road on the way to Ephrat [Bethlehem].”  (By the way, the site is just south of Jerusalem and has been included in the Israeli side of the security barrier.  The Palestinians falsely claim that it has always been a mosque, but there are attestations to its existence that precede Islam, and of course Torah references the location as well.  Kibbutz Ramat Rachel overlooks the site.  See for more details.)


Ramban takes this idea somewhat further.  He points out that all mitzvot that are not dependent on the Land (i.e. agricultural mitzvot) are indeed obligatory on every Jew, whether living in the Land or outside the Land.  The difference is, when one lives in the Land, the mitzvot are performed at a higher level, simply because the performance “fits” with the holiness of the Land better.  Thus when I put on t’fillin in Iowa, the kedushah (holiness) of the t’fillin certainly elevates my level of consciousness.  However, there is nothing special about the atmosphere in Iowa that is particularly suited to or supportive of that kedushah; consequently it’s just an action between me and my t’fillin so to speak.  If I move to the Land of Israel, all of a sudden there’s a “third party” that is maximally fit to support and enhance the effect of the t’fillin on my soul.  Perhaps one could compare it to the action of a protein in catalyzing an organic reaction – the reaction can take place whether the protein is there or not, but since the reagents “fit” into the three-dimensional structure of the protein, their relationship is enhanced as it were, and the reaction can proceed more quickly and easily.  In the same way, the Land of Israel catalyzes the relationship between the individual Jew, and the Jewish people on one side, and the mitzvot Gd has given us for our growth on the other.  The mitzvot are simply more effective in the Land than outside it.


Finally, in the same Malbim passage I quoted for this Parashah last year, we get a third angle:

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.


Perhaps the key to understanding the nature of mitzvot, both in Eretz Yisrael and outside it is hinted at by the use of the term “distinguished” (m’tzuyanim).  There is a relation between the word mitzvah and the word m’tzuyan.  Gd has given us the mitzvot to be a signpost for us, pointing the way towards a life of perfection on earth and closeness to Gd (devekut, see 11:22).  They function first as a guide to our behavior.  If we perform the mitzvot properly, with proper intent, we progressively tune our individual minds and wills to be consonant with Gd’s Will, which is universal and unbounded.  In addition, to a certain extent, we can judge if we’re moving in a positive direction, by seeing how the mitzvot become more and more effortless and natural to us as our souls are purified.  Perhaps, when and if we become completely pure and righteous, a state in which sin is impossible and we are totally indentified with the infinite basis of life, each mitzvah we perform smiles at us and signals “You’ve made it; your exile is ended; you’ve come home!”


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 23

Yehudah ben Teima says: Be as brazen as a leopard, and light as an eagle, swift as a gazelle and mighty as a lion to do the Will of your Father in Heaven.

Especially in exile, far from their natural “habitat,” performing the mitzvot is sometimes difficult.  It takes strength, perseverance and a bit of chutzpah to separate ourselves out from the society in which we live, to hold fast to our traditional ways, to pursue the truth as it has been handed down to us from Gd through the great leaders and teachers of our people.  Nevertheless we are bound to make our best effort, for that is what we were put on this earth to accomplish.  The reward is fulfillment on both the individual and communal level – material fulfillment (and you shall eat and be satisfied) and of course spiritual fulfillment.  We purify and uplift our entire surroundings and give nachas to Gd, for we complete and glorify the entire creation.