Thoughts on Parashat Va’etchanan.
What are mitzvot/commandments? The word commandment has many synonyms, such as command, recommendation, indication, regulation, guideline, order, norm, imperative, rule, instruction, directive… Using these synonyms, we can say that commandments are certain directives that order or recommend to do something. And while for the vast majority of the commandments of the Torah this kind of definition would not be problematic at all, in the parashah we read this week we have two commandments that elude this understanding, namely:
You shall love your God יהוה with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
which is obviously the first line of our daily V’ahavta prayer; the second of these commandments begins the repetition of the Decalogue:
I יהוה am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: (Deuteronomy 5:6)
This mitzvah seems to completely fall short of our definition of a commandment; primarily because it is not expressed in a normative language at all, it seems to be simply a statement of a fact. Yet this verse is considered a commandment in our tradition, and the one of the most fundamental! It is understood as the commandment to believe in God, and everything is based on it – the entire normative, moral and ritual code of the Torah.
This problem troubled the rabbis, who asked how could you command faith in God or the love of God or neighbor? This question led some commentators to conclude that the term mitzvah / commandment could not apply these verses. The medieval Spanish philosopher Hasdai Crescas argued that:
The very nature of the term “mitzvah” implies by definition that it can only apply to matters of free will and choice. But believing that God exists is one of those things that are not subject to free will and choice. Accordingly, the term mitzvah (commandment) cannot apply here.
Likewise, Abrawanel, a 15th-century Sephardic biblical commentator, believed that the first commandment was merely a prelude to subsequent commandments and commands, a declaration informing the Children of Israel who addressed them. Our tradition, however, rejected this view and placed both mitzvahs in the 613 commandments of the Torah. Ibn Ezra pointed out that there are more commandments of this kind, like those prescribing certain states of mind or emotion:
You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but* incur no guilt on their account. (Leviticus 19:17)
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow [Israelite] as yourself: I am יהוה. (Leviticus 19:18)
This group also includes the last commandment of the decalogue, which forbids coveting one’s neighbor’s spouse, as well as things at his disposal.
There are (at least) two ways of understanding this issue with different but complementary practical implications. The first is that the commandments ordering us to certain states of mind or feelings are to teach us the self-control that is necessary for a conscious and moral life. According to this approach, action is understood very broadly and also includes the processes taking place inside us. The second understanding defines the aforementioned commandments as general principles from which all the more detailed commandments for practical actions per se derive. Thus, the commandment “You shall love Adonai your God” finds its fulfillment in keeping all God’s commandments. Thus, love, both for God and for the neighbor, is not limited only to specific feelings and emotions – it acquires a practical character, and thus real, deep and true.
In my opinion, these commandments, understood as general principles, are at the same time the deeper grounding for all specific commandments: they are the source of the appropriate kavanah in our moral actions. These general commandments remind us that the purpose of our actions is to build a better world for us and our descendants. With the right kavanah, genuine love and faith, our actions gain a deeper meaning.
While one of the fundamental, practical goals of our religion and of our entire religious law system is to teach us discipline and self-control, we should be aware of their limitations. Many of our actions ultimately go beyond ourselves and we often don’t have control over their outcomes, especially the more distant ones. Where our control ends, faith begins. If our actions are motivated by good, positive intentions, we have a right to believe that God will lead our actions to the ultimate and good goals we have intended. (He usually does it with the hands of good and righteous people, although He has many other impenetrable ways as well.) Human arrogance and the obsession with controlling everything and everyone do a great deal of damage to our lives, both private and social, especially if they are accompanied by a fake collectivism in thinking that does not respect our individual rights and personal freedoms. Faith understood in the above-mentioned way teaches us humility, awareness of our own limitations and is a spiritual remedy for the above-mentioned destructive forces and endeavors.