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Parashat Ekev 5774 — 08/13/2014

Parashat Ekev 5774 — 08/13/2014

You are to place these words of Mine… (Devarim 11:18)

We find in the Sifri. “[Hashem said:] Although I am exiling you from your land, distinguish yourselves with mitzvos [there] so that when you return, they will not be new to you.” …  And this is what Yirmiyahu told the [exiles:] Set up signposts for yourselves (31:20). “These signposts are the mitzvos because through them, the Jewish People distinguishes itself.”

   According to the Sifri, then, this is why the Torah tells us, You are to place these words of Mine, after it says, And you will be removed swiftly from the goodly land.  The contiguity teaches us that even outside of Eretz Yisrael – in the lands of our exile – we must fulfill the Torah and the mitzvos.

   How truly awesome this is, for the Jewish soul’s nourishment is nothing other than Torah and mitzvos, and each Jew requires this nourishment just as he needs physical nourishment for his body. For this reason Hashem says to the Jewish People, Come, eat of My bread (Mishlei 9:5). [Now, we know that] when a person goes without [solid] food for a few days – whether voluntarily or under duress it can happen that his desire for any type of food vanishes, and the only loss he senses is loss of strength. It is exactly the same when his soul does not get its nourishment. If it happens that a Jew is not engaged in Torah and mitzvos for a significant period of time – even if the situation was forced on him such that he will certainly not be punished – his soul loses its natural yearning for spiritual matters. He finds it very difficult thereafter to observe the Torah and the mitzvos properly as do other Jews. Therefore, Hakadosh Baruch Hu hints to us through His prophet, Set up signposts for yourselves .. In other words, do everything in your power to accustom your souls to the service of Hashem. Do not deny them their spiritual nourishment during the difficult times that they will be forced to endure.  (Chafetz Chaim)

In Europe a few centuries ago, it was fashionable to set up elaborate labyrinths of high hedges and have partygoers try to extricate themselves from them.  One of the hosts would often stand on a balcony above the party, and could look down into the labyrinth and guide the bewildered guest who was inextricably lost.  Quaint perhaps, but according to the Chafetz Chaim, this labyrinth is a powerful metaphor for our situation in life.

Hashem, in His wisdom, has made us composite creatures – a purely spiritual, ethereal soul inhabiting a material, physical body.  Since the soul is essentially infinite, it should be able to see “from one end of the earth to the other” as Adam could before his sin.  However, the soul is encased in a material body, which acts as a covering or blinders, as it were, restricting our vision to our immediate physical surroundings in time and space.  We are like the tipsy partier in a labyrinth of physical boundaries, unable to discern the proper path directly, and not thinking clearly enough to take the appropriate steps to figure out how to escape.  In fact, as the Chafetz Chaim intimates, if the situation continues long enough, we not only lose our way, we forget that there is a way out.  In fact, we become oblivious to the fact that we’re trapped, and forget that there is an “out” altogether, a state of existence of unbounded vistas and unlimited freedom.

Fortunately for us, we have somebody in the balcony above us giving us instructions for getting out of the labyrinth.  As the Chafetz Chaim points out, this is the role of our Torah and its mitzvot.  The word mitzvah has some related meanings.  We are familiar with the idea of a mitzvah as a “commandment” – Gd is the Commander, and we, as His creatures, are obligated to obey.  However, as we see from the quote, mitzvah can also mean a “signpost.”  How is this related to the idea of a commandment?  Suppose the person attempting to guide us through the maze of life were too high up, or too far away for us to be able to hear them directly.  How would they help us out of the maze?

One way would be to send someone with a cell phone (anachronism!!), by which he could communicate with him at a distance, into the maze with road signs indicating the correct way out.  He could then direct that one person to place the appropriate signposts at the appropriate locations within the maze, indicating what actions to take at each step of the way, until one is fully extricated.  Along with the signposts would come some general guidance, how to interpret the signposts properly, and enough knowledge to know that we are actually in a maze and that our purpose is not to find some spot within it that’s perhaps somewhat more comfortable than the rest, but rather to escape the maze altogether.  In this context, we still may not understand all the details of the signposts – our perspective is still too limited – but at least it gives us a reason to follow them and to gain the benefit from them.  Once we wake up to the reality that we are stuck, we can start taking instructions on how to get unstuck, not before.

I’d like to make one last point on this issue of signposts.  A signpost can point us to the goal, and a signpost can tell us when we’ve reached the goal.  In our case, the goal is to come into a direct relationship with Gd, both individually and as a people.  As we get closer to Gd, our perception clears and our action spontaneously begins to conform with Gd’s Will.  When we get to the apex of this relationship, when our individuality has just about merged with Gd’s cosmic Reality, then there is effectively no difference between our will and Gd’s Will.  Our actions are spontaneously in accord with Gd’s Will, which is of course expressed in Torah – perhaps this is the meaning underlying our Sages’ statement that the Patriarchs observed the entire Torah (even though it had not yet been given).  At this point we can no more violate a commandment then we could put our hand into a burning fire.  In this case, the mitzvot have become signposts that tell us we have reached the goal.  For those of us still lost on the path, we’d all do well to ask for directions!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 17: Heroism (25 October 2001)

This essay contrasts the bombastic heroism of the war hero with the quiet heroism of the one who goes through his life and overcomes the obstacles that material creation puts in front of him, whatever they may be.  We all need to recognize and truly internalize that every obstacle that is placed in our path is a test – that is, a challenge that is intended to draw out the best of us, capacities that we have that we are probably at best dimly aware of.  When we overcome our challenges we become better, more complete people, more aware of ourselves and more aware of our place in Gd’s creation.  Not many of us are born to lead nations or armies, but each of us is responsible for our own growth and evolution, and this is no small responsibility – our action, right or wrong, can have cosmic effect.  We each must “screw our courage to the sticking-post” and never give up striving for the infinite.