Because you hearken to these laws (Deuteronomy 7:12)
The commentaries dwell on the Hebrew word eikev in this verse—an uncommon synonym for “because.” Many see a connection with the word akeiv (same spelling, different pronunciation), which means “heel.”
Rashi interprets this as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with his heels—the Torah is telling us to be equally diligent with all of G‑d’s commandments, no less with those that seem less significant to our finite minds.
Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides interpret it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward being something that follows the action. A similar interpretation is given by Ohr HaChaim, who explains that true satisfaction and fulfillment comes at the “end”—the complete fulfillment of all the mitzvot, and by Rabbeinu Bechayei, who sees it as an allusion that the reward we do receive in this world is but a lowly and marginal (the “heel”) aspect of the true worth of the mitzvot.
Tzemach Tzedek (the third Chabad rebbe) sees it as a reference to ikveta d’meshicha, the generation of “the heels of Moshiach” (the last generation of the exile is called “the heels of Moshiach” by our sages because: a) they are the spiritually lowest generation, due to the “descent of the generations”; b) it is the generation in which the footsteps of Moshiach can already be heard). This is the generation that will “hearken to these laws,” as Maimonides writes: “The Torah has already promised that the people of Israel will return to G‑d at the end of their exile, and will be immediately redeemed.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe says: Our commitment to Torah should be such that it permeates us entirely, so that also our heel—the lowest and the least sensitive part of the person—“hearkens to these laws, observes them and does them.” In other words, our relationship with G‑d should not be confined to the holy days of the year, or to certain “holy” hours we devote to prayer and study, but should also embrace our everyday activities. Indeed, this “lowly” and “spiritually insensitive” part of our life is the foundation of our relationship with G‑d, in the same way that the heel is the base upon which the entire body stands and moves.
When you understand that the nations are more numerous than you, and that you, with your own power, cannot defeat them, but are totally dependent on G‑d’s help, then you need not fear them. But if you begin to believe that you can defeat them on your own, then you indeed have great cause for fear.
The simple meaning of the phrase “all the mitzvah” is the entire body of divine commandments—all the mitzvot. The Midrashic interpretation is: do the whole mitzvah. If you begin a good deed, finish it, for a mitzvah is credited to the one who concludes the task. Thus it is written: “Joseph’s bones, which the children of Israel took out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem.” Yet it was Moses himself who took Joseph’s bones out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19)! But since he did not conclude the task, and the children of Israel concluded it, it is called by their name.
All the generations of history labored to bring Moshiach, and certainly their contribution is greater than ours. Nevertheless, we are the “generation of redemption,” since “a mitzvah is credited to the one who concludes the task.”
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was asked by his disciples: Why didn’t the manna come down for Israel once a year?
He replied: I shall give a parable. This thing may be compared to a king of flesh and blood who had an only son, whom he provided with maintenance once a year, so that he would visit his father once a year only. Thereupon he provided for his maintenance every day, so that he called on him every day. The same with Israel. One who had four or five children would worry, saying: Perhaps no manna will come down tomorrow, and all will die of hunger? Thus they were found to turn their attention to their Father in Heaven.
(Talmud, Yoma 76a)
For forty years the children of Israel were sustained by “bread from heaven,” instilling in them the recognition that sustenance comes entirely from G‑d; that no matter how much a person toils to earn his livelihood, he receives no more and no less than what has been allotted him from Above.
The challenge is to retain this recognition also after entering the Land and making the transition to “bread from the earth.” Even when we are nourished by bread which we earn by “the sweat of our brow,” we must remember that, in truth, our sustenance comes from G‑d, and that we never receive an iota more or an iota less than what is allotted us from Above.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
At the core of every existence is a divine utterance that created it (“Let there be light,” “Let the earth sprout forth vegetation,” etc.), which remains nestled within it to continuously supply it with being and life. The soul of man descends into the trappings and trials of physical life in order to unite with and elevate the “sparks of holiness” buried in the food it eats, the clothes it wears, and all the other objects and forces of the physical existence it interacts with. For when a person utilizes something, directly or indirectly, to serve the Creator, he penetrates its shell of mundanity, revealing and realizing its divine essence and purpose.
Therein lies a deeper meaning to the verse (Psalms 107:5): “The hungry and the thirsty, in them does their soul wrap itself.” A person may desire food and sense only his body’s hunger, but in truth his physical craving is but the expression and external “packaging” of a deeper yen—his soul’s craving for the sparks of holiness that are the object of its mission in physical life.
(Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch)
This explains a most puzzling fact of life: how is it that man, the highest form of life, derives vitality and sustenance from the lower tiers of creation—the animal, vegetable and mineral? But the true source of nourishment is the “divine utterance” in every creation, and, as the Kabbalists teach, the “lowlier” the creation, the loftier the divine energy it contains. In this the universe resembles a collapsed wall, in which the highest stones fall the farthest.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
When a father punishes his child, the suffering he inflicts on himself is greater than anything experienced by the child. So it is with G‑d: His pain is greater than our pain.
(Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev)
Asked Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov: The Torah repeatedly warns against pride and extols humility. Nevertheless, this precept is not counted as one of the 613 commandments. Why isn’t it a mitzvah to be humble?
Answered the Baal Shem Tov: If humility were a mitzvah, the ego of man would count it among its achievements.
The “Holy Ari” (master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534–1572) writes that the last generation of the galut (exile) is the reincarnation of Moses’ generation—the “generation of the desert.”
Indeed, ours is a generation of “thirst without water.” It is a generation that thirsts for the truth, thirsts for meaning and purpose in life. But the water to quench this thirst, the knowledge to address the why and how of existence, is elusive to them, sealed behind barriers of ignorance and alienation.
But the thirst is there, awaiting satisfaction. Ours is a generation prepared to drink, if only they would be provided with the water they know not where to seek.
(from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, summer of 1957)
G‑dliness is a blazing flame; Torah study and prayer require a flaming heart. Between coldness and heresy stands an extremely thin wall.
(Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch)
I once saw a Russian soldier being whipped. His crime? While standing watch on a winter night, his feet had frozen in their boots. “Had you remembered the oath you took to serve the Czar,” his commander berated him, “the memory would have kept you warm.”
“For 25 years,” concluded Rabbi Nechemiah, “this incident inspired my service of the Almighty.”
Better a sinful person who knows that he has sinned, than a righteous person who knows that he is righteous.
(“The Seer of Lublin,” Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz)
The tablets were each six handbreadths long and three handbreadths wide. Moses held two handbreadths [of the tablets’ length], G‑d held two handbreadths, and in between were two handbreadths of space. Moses’ hands prevailed, and he grabbed hold of the tablets and broke them.
There was not a corner of the heavens with which Moses did not grapple to attain G‑d’s forgiveness of Israel . . .
When Israel committed that act, Moses arose to appease G‑d and said: “Master of the Universe! They have given You an assistant, and You are annoyed with them? Why, this calf which they have made will be Your assistant: You will cause the sun to rise, while it will cause the moon to rise; You will look after the stars, and it will see to the constellations; You will cause the dew to descend, and it will cause the winds to blow; You will make the rains come down, while it will be responsible for the growth of plants.”
Said G‑d to him: “Moses! You err as they do! For there is nothing real in it.”
Said Moses: “If this is the case, why should Your wrath burn against Your people?”
What was his idea in mentioning here the going out of Egypt? Because it was thus that Moses pleaded: “Master of the Universe, see from which place You have brought them forth—from Egypt, where everyone worships lambs.”
Said Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It can be compared to a wise man who opened a perfumery shop for his son in a street frequented by harlots. The street did its work, the business also did its share, and the son’s youth likewise contributed its part, with the result that the son fell into evil ways. When the father came and caught him among the harlots, he began to shout: “I will kill you!” But his friend was there, and he said: “You were the cause of this youth’s corruption, and you shout at him? You set aside all other professions and have taught him only to be a perfumer; you skipped over all other districts and opened a shop for him just in the street where harlots dwell . . .”
This is what Moses said: “Master of the Universe! You passed over the entire world to have Your children to be enslaved only in Egypt, where all worshipped lambs. . . . Bear in mind whence You have brought them forth!”
This is what Moses said: “Master of the Universe! When I asked You what their merit was that You should redeem them, since they are idolaters, You said: ‘You see them only now as idolaters, but I can foresee them departing from Egypt, and My dividing the Red Sea for them, and bringing them into the wilderness, and giving them the Torah and revealing Myself unto them face to face, and them accepting My kingship—yet denying Me at the end of forty days by making the calf!’ (This is the meaning of what G‑d said to Moses at the burning bush, “I have heard their cries”—I hear already their cries around the calf).
“Since You have told me of their making a golden calf long before You did deliver them,” argued Moses, “why do You seek to slay them now that they have made it?” It was for this reason that Moses mentioned the exodus from Egypt in his plea for mercy.
It can be compared to a king who had an uncultivated field and who said to a tenant-laborer: “Go improve it, and convert it into a vineyard.” The laborer went and tended the field and planted it as a vineyard. The vines grew and produced wine, which however became sour. When the king saw that the wine had become sour, he said to the laborer: “Go and cut it all down; what is the use to me of a vineyard that produces vinegar?” But the laborer pleaded: “O my lord and king! Consider what sums you invested before the vineyard was planted, and now You want to cut it all down! Do not give me the reply ‘But its wine becomes sour,’ for this is due to the newness of the vineyard, and a freshly planted vineyard cannot produce good wine.”
Similarly, when Israel made the golden calf, G‑d intended to destroy them, but Moses pleaded: “Master of the Universe! Did You not bring them forth from Egypt, a place of idol-worshippers? They are yet young, as it says (Hosea 11:1), ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.’ Be patient with them yet awhile and go with them, and they will yet perform good deeds before You.”
Moses pleaded: “Master of the Universe! Why are You angry with Israel?” “Because they have broken the Ten Commandments,” said G‑d. “Well,” said Moses, “they possess a source from which they can make repayment. . . . Remember that You tested Abraham with ten trials? Let those ten serve as compensation for these ten.” This is why Moses said, “Remember Abraham . . .”
Moses spoke thus: “Master of the Universe! Do the dead live [in the world to come]?”
Said G‑d: “Moses, have you become a heretic?”
But Moses answered: “If the dead are not brought to life in the world to come, then You are free to do all that You intend. But if they be alive, what will You say to the Patriarchs when they will arise and seek from You fulfillment of the promise which You have made them? What answer will You give them? For did You not promise them that You would increase their children as the stars of heaven?”
According to the Talmud, the shittah was a type of cedar; in Rabbi Saadiah Gaon’s (Arabic) translation of Torah it is rendered shant, or “acacia.”
Chassidic teaching sees the word shittim as related to the word shetut, “folly”—an allusion to the fact that the function of the Mishkan was to transform the folly of materialism into “folly of holiness”—commitment to G‑d that transcends the rationale and normalcy of “the way things are.”
Just as those days, [the first forty days, to receive the first tablets,] were with [G‑d’s] good will, so were these with good will. But the intermediate [forty days], when I remained to pray for you, were in anger.
Moses absolved his Creator of His vow. When Israel made the calf, Moses began to persuade G‑d to forgive them, but G‑d said: “Moses, I have already taken an oath that ‘He that sacrifices unto the gods . . . shall be destroyed’ (Exodus 22:19), and I cannot retract an oath which has proceeded from My mouth.”
Said Moses: “Master of the Universe! Did You not grant me the power of annulment of oaths? (See commentaries to Numbers 30:3.) If a jurist desires that others should respect his laws, he must be the first to observe them. Since You have commanded me concerning the annulment of vows, it is only right and proper that You should follow this procedure Yourself.”
Whereupon Moses wrapped himself in his tallit and seated himself in the posture of a rabbinical judge, and G‑d stood before him as one asking for the annulment of his vow; for so it says, “Then I sat on the mount” (Deuteronomy 9:9) . . .
What did Moses say to Him? A most difficult thing. Rabbi Yochanan said: The difficult thing he said was: “Do You now regret Your vow?” G‑d replied: “I regret now the evil which I said I would do unto My people.” When Moses heard this, he proclaimed: “Be it absolved for You, be it absolved for You. There is neither vow nor oath any longer . . .”
Is fear of G‑d a minor thing? Yes, for Moses it is a minor thing.
(Talmud, Berachot 33b)
At first glance, the [Talmud’s] answer is incomprehensible, since the verse says “What does G‑d ask of you” [not of Moses]!
But the explanation is as follows:
Each and every soul of the house of Israel contains within it something of the quality of our teacher Moses, for he is one of the “seven shepherds” who feed vitality and G‑dliness to the community of the souls of Israel. . . . Moses is the sum of them all, called the “shepherd of faith” (raaya meheimna), in the sense that he nourishes the community of Israel with the knowledge and recognition of G‑d . . .
So although who is the man who dares presume in his heart to approach and attain even a thousandth part of the level of the faithful shepherd, nevertheless, an infinitesimal fringe and minute particle of his great goodness and light illuminates every Jew in each and every generation.
What kind of bribe might G‑d take? Even if a completely pious person commits a transgression, G‑d does not deduct from his merits to compensate for his sin, but will punish him for the sin and give him full reward for his good deeds.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov would say:
There are two types of fields: an irrigated field, and a field watered by rain.
The scholar’s soul is an irrigated field, devotedly developed and nurtured by her farmer. The soul of the simple Jew is a rain-nourished field, surrendering herself to the whims of the heavens, humbly awaiting blessing and stimulation from above.
The irrigated field yields a harvest that is superior, in quantity and quality, to that of her passive sister. But the rain-watered field is a truer, purer reflection on her heavenly Maker.
“Rain” represents the reciprocal relationship between heaven and earth. “A vapor rises from the earth” to the heavens, and the heavens return it as rain which “quenches the face of the land” (Genesis 2:6). This represents the spiritual truth that “an arousal from below evokes an arousal from above”—that G‑d responds to the efforts of man, reciprocating our prayers, yearnings and deeds with nurture from Above.
This is the doctrine of the rain-watered land. Egypt, however, was nourished not by descending rain but by the overflow of the Nile, which would periodically flood the land. The spiritual “Egyptian” is one who does not recognize the heavenly source of the blessings of life. He believes that all is generated from below—that everything he has and has achieved is of his own making.
The people of Israel had been subjected to the Egyptian mentality for four generations. Thus they had to spend forty years in the desert, during which they were subjected to a diametrically opposite set of circumstances, in which one’s daily bread descends from heaven and one’s own efforts have no effect on the result. Only after this lesson in the true source of life could they enter the land that “drinks water of the rain of heaven”—where man’s efforts are crucial and significant, yet are permeated with a recognition of, and dependence upon, the true Source of All.
(The Chassidic Masters)
What is the service of the heart? This is prayer.
(Talmud, Taanit 2a)
(Talmud, Berachot 30b)
At that time (1764) Vilna and Mezeritch were the great Jewish capitals of Eastern Europe. Vilna was the seat of Rabbi Eliyahu, the famed Gaon of Vilna, and Mezeritch was the hometown of Rabbi DovBer (the “Maggid”), leader of the chassidic movement.
Related Rabbi Schneur Zalman: “I debated as to where I should go. I knew that in Vilna one was taught how to study, and that in Mezeritch one could learn how to pray. To study I was somewhat able, but of prayer I knew very little. So I went to Mezeritch.
“The Almighty blessed me with making the right choice. I became a devoted chassid of our rebbe, and upon my return to Vitebsk, I guided my disciples in the teachings of Chassidism, which were well received by them.”
Said Rabbi Judah in the name of Rav: A person is forbidden to eat before he feeds his animals, for it is written, “[I will give grass in your fields] for your livestock,” and only after that, “that you may eat and be full.”
(Talmud, Berachot 40a)
Also after you are exiled, you must distinguish yourselves with the mitzvot: put on tefillin, make mezuzot, so that these will not be new to you when you return. Thus [the prophet] says (Jeremiah 31:20): “Establish for yourself signs.”
You shall place these words of Mine in your heart and in your soul; and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes. And you shall teach them your children . . . (11:18–19)
Just as it is incumbent upon every Jew to put on tefillin every day, so is there an unequivocal duty which rests upon every individual, from the greatest scholar to the most simple of folk, to set aside a half-hour each day in which to think about the education of his children.
(Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch)
The verse does not say, “to give to you,” but “to give to them”: from here we derive a reference to the resurrection of the dead from the Torah.
He is merciful; you too should be merciful. He does acts of kindness; you too should do acts of kindness.
G‑d clothes the naked, as it is written: “G‑d made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21); so should you too clothe the naked.
G‑d visits the sick, as it is written: “G‑d appeared to him by the Oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1); so should you too visit the sick.
G‑d comforts mourners, as it is written: “It came to pass after the death of Abraham that G‑d blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11); so should you too comfort mourners.
G‑d buries the dead, as it is written: “He buried him in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6); so should you too bury the dead.
(Talmud, Sotah 14a)
Is it possible to say such a thing? G‑d is a “consuming fire”! But the meaning of this commandment is this: cleave to the students and sages of Torah, and it shall be considered as if you cleaved to Him.