This week's parsha
The Rhyme of No Reason
During the closing days of Israel’s 1982 “Peace in Galilee” campaign in Lebanon, Tuvia Bolton was one of ten Chabad Chassidim who obtained authorization from the army to enter Beirut to cheer up the soldiers and assist them with their religious needs.
One morning, at the crack of dawn, they got their tefillin ready, and began asking soldiers if they wanted to do a mitzvah and put them on for a minute.
Walking around looking for “customers,” Tuvia happened upon a line of about ten open-roofed jeeps with two soldiers seated in each. Their motors were running, and they were waiting in the chilly morning to go out on a mission.
He approached a soldier in a jeep and asked whether he wanted to don tefillin.
The fellow looked straight ahead, without reacting to the question. Tuvia stood waiting for a reply. After a few seconds of silence, the soldier turned and said (loose translation): “Get out of my sight, you religious degenerate! If you don’t get out of my face, I’ll tear you to pieces!”
Tuvia got the message that the answer was no. He tried to force a smile and figure out something to say, when the driver of the next jeep in line suddenly called out in a desperate tone of voice: “Rabbi, rabbi! Come here. I want to put on tefillin.” Happy to get away, Tuvia began to walk toward the third jeep in the line. “Tell me, rabbi,” the soldier called nervously after Tuvia had taken a few steps and was still quite a distance from him. “If . . . if I put on tefillin, will G‑d protect me?”
The man was obviously very worried. Yesterday he was probably sitting in his hardware store selling tools, and here he was today about to enter the front lines.
“Listen, my friend,” Tuvia assured him, “G‑d will protect you whether you put on the tefillin or not. Don’t worry. He loves you unconditionally. But if G‑d protects you for free, why not do something for Him for free, and put on tefillin?”
It seems that the soldier who had been rude to him heard this exchange, because when Tuvia was done helping the other soldier with the tefillin, he called out, “Hey, rabbi! Come over here!”
Meanwhile he was rolling up his sleeve like he wanted to put on tefillin.
“What do you want? What happened?” asked Tuvia incredulously.
“What do you care?” he replied. “I want to put on the tefillin, too.”
“Listen, my friend. To put on tefillin in order to go to heaven, that’s not for me. But to put on tefillin for no reason . . . that I’m willing to do!”
And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that G‑d, your G‑d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. —Deuteronomy 7:12
An interesting verse. Rather puzzling, even contradictory.
At first glance it appears to speak of a relationship with G‑d that is conditioned upon observance: “because you will heed these ordinances, etc.” It suggests that “G‑d will keep you” only if you keep Him.
Here we encounter the alleged classic mode of interaction between deity and worshipper, identical to the standard give and take which characterizes any commercial relationship, except that in this case the supplier can be relied upon to deliver.
This system is clearly articulated in the second paragraph of the most central Jewish prayer, the Shema (recorded later on in the same Torah portion):
And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day . . . I will give the rain of your land at its time, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated . . .
Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods . . . And He will close the heavens and there will be no rain, and the land will yield no produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land that G‑d gives you.
This arrangement is straightforward, containing no hidden fees or clauses: keep G‑d’s will, and He will keep yours.
The thing is, we are taught by the sages that there’s more to our relationship with G‑d than cold business.
An inherent and unconditional bond binds G‑d and Jew, operating entirely independent of their respective performances. Jewish history is living proof of this deeper connection—a thousand times over. Just imagine if Jewish survival were linked to observance, or if Jewish devotion to G‑d depended on our people leading the good life . . .
The metaphor of covenant, achieved through an oath, is applied by the Torah to this unbreakable tie. For both a covenant and an oath are, by definition, unconditional, necessary only for moments of low or no performance.
This leaves us wondering about the above-quoted verse: “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that G‑d, your G‑d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers,” which implies that our unconditional connection with G‑d is itself conditional!
Choices to Make
Before unlocking the secret to understanding this enigmatic verse, an introduction is in order.
The rather unusual Hebrew word used here for “because [you will heed . . . ],” eikev, is related to the Hebrew word for heel.
Thus the unusual word choice leads Rashi to interpret the verse thusly: “If you will heed the minor commandments, those which a person tends to trample with his heels . . . [then ‘G‑d will keep His promise to you . . .’].”
What Rashi is saying here is that this verse isn’t referring to the quantity of divine service, but to its quality. This is about attitude, not amount.
Are mitzvot our way of paying G‑d for a service?
Are the good deeds we do our calculated trade for health, wealth, and happiness?
Is our relationship with G‑d a game of mathematics or economics? One for me, one for You?
If it is, we are bound to trip on our heels. When observing the Torah, we will come to pick and choose. And even if we choose all—because we want all—a means to serve G‑d has essentially become a means to serve ourselves.
This is not to say that the math doesn’t add up. It does. Just see the second paragraph of Shema. But good math can merely satisfy, not infatuate; it can produce money, but not love.
For love begins where mathematical equations end.
This brings us to the inner meaning of the verse: “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform them”—as Rashi explains, in the way of lovers, who skip math and discard heels—“that G‑d, your G‑d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” G‑d will reciprocate accordingly.
Proverbs teaches: “As in water, one face reflects another, so is the heart of a man to a man.”
Our verse adds: So is the heart of G‑d to man.