Two statements lead the portion of the Torah we read this week. The first statement is: “Then it shall come about, because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep with you His covenant and His lovingkindness which He swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you.” However, there is also another statement, “It shall come about if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the LORD your God.” It is important to realize that there is a difference between the two statements. On the positive side it is a result of certain action, “because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them” both listening and doing. On the negative side, “because you would not listen to the voice of the LORD your God.” Here it is not the judgement that is discussed but rather listening to a Godly voice.
We may have expected that when the reference is made to the negative case the reference will also be to the judgment, but this is not the case. On the positive side it is noted that is a result of keeping and performing while on the negative side it is said that it is a result of not listening to the voice of God; not to those speaking for God but rather for the Godly voice itself. So many times these days we hear of certain rabbis claiming that they deliver the word of the Lord, that they are the ones to bring the Halachic word to us though they have no responsibility to what is said there. They argue that they deliver the words as they are. This, I think, is not what the Torah is trying to tell us. We have an extended responsibility to listen to the judgments, maintain them and practice them into our reality. This requires us to process what we learn. We find that out from the negative case which comes about for failing to listen to the word of God. We may have followed the judgment but were not listening.
In the Mishna, Seder Nezikin, Tractate Avot, Chapter 4, 2nd Mishna, we find: Ben Azzai says: run to do an easy mitzvah, and flee from sin; since one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; since the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and the reward for one sin is another sin.” Even if the easiest righteous deeds are done, those which are the most basic, still there will be a reward of additional ones. This is simply because as we get used to doing good deeds, it becomes a habit. From the sins, one should try and run away as they have a sneaky way to them, chasing us, begging us to fail with them. And it is so easy for that to happen. Thus the Mishna suggests that we take seriously also the easiest of mitzvahs and perform them with all heartedly and graciously.
The way things deteriorate are quite clear, and may actually begin when keeping to all the laws, may be strictly to a point they become a sin. “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become ]proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’” We are warned to be aware of this tendency to forget what brought us the wealth and comfort. We think we are taking the right path while in fact we are going “after other gods”. Going after such other gods does not necessarily mean praying or worshiping them. It can well be the case that we become addicted to those deeds which do not advance a just society, one which is worthy of living in, that is compassionate and accepting. It happens not when we forget a mitzvah or a law but rather when we forget what is above it all. When we forget the foundation there is no way of building a sound structure for life.
We have “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.” Maybe it does not always seem that way, certainly not always does it feel this way, but much of it actually depends on what we do. It depends on our ability to understand that when we do good we are in a circle of mitzvahs and we are in the process of building something which is better. We need to do that without diverting left or right to see what others are doing. We simply need to do that which brings us to success and delivers happiness.
Reuven Marko, 23 August 2019, 23 Menachem-Av, 5779