Service of the Heart
With the reading of Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh, the book of Devarim draws towards its conclusion. The Parasha's cautionary but hopeful message of transgression and teshuva, exile and restoration, is particularly appropriate as summer gives way to fall and the season of the High Holidays approaches. This week, we will consider a striking passage from the Parasha, a series of verses that encapsulate the essence of its lofty message, and we will analyze the matter in light of the commentaries.
This mitzva that I command to you this day is neither too wondrous for you nor too distant. It is not in the heavens, that you should say: 'who can ascend to the heavens on our behalf and bring it to us, so that we might hearken to it and fulfill it!' Nor is it over the ocean, that you should say: 'who can cross over to the other side of the sea and bring it to us, so that we might hearken to it and fulfill it!' Rather, the matter is very, very close to you, upon your lips and in your heart to perform it.
Behold, I place before you this day life and the good, death and the bad. This is what I command to you this day: love God your Lord and to walk in His ways, observe His commands, decrees and laws, so that you might live and increase, so that God your Lord will bless you on the land that you are about to enter and inherit. But if your heart turns away and you do not listen, so that you stray and bow down to other gods and serve them, then I say to you this day that you will surely be lost. You will not have length of days upon the earth that you cross over the Yarden in order to enter and to inherit. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your descendents might live! Love God your Lord, hearken to His words and cleave to Him, for that will be the source of your life and length of your days to dwell upon the earth that God swore to your ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'acov to give to them (Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:11-20).
The basic themes of the section are straightforward enough. Life and success in the new land are predicated upon the people remaining loyal to God and to His commands. Adopting the idolatrous ways of the land's inhabitants will spell death and doom for Israel. Which one of these two extremes unfolds, though, will be solely a function of the people's autonomous choice. While Moshe pleads with them to "choose life", in the final analysis it is they who will decide which course of history to adopt.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
But Moshe introduces his laden words with an encouraging assertion: the "mitzva that I command to you this day" is within reach and capable of fulfillment. It is not too wondrous or too distant; it is as near as one's own heartbeat and therefore achievable. From the context, the "mitzva" in question is presumably a reference to the Torah itself, the source of the life and the good that the passage then goes on to enumerate. The implication would therefore be that the commands ("mitzvot") of the Torah itself are neither too wondrous nor too distant to fulfill, where "wondrous" describes arcane rituals and deeds that are the exclusive preserve of the initiated, and "distant" speaks of actions that require superhuman ability to perform. On the contrary, Moshe indicates, the Torah of Israel belongs to all of the people of Israel, and every one of them whose mind is open and whose heart is sensitive can partake of it and successfully carry it out.
If so, then the thrust of the passage is to oppose any attempt to render the Torah's mitzvot into cryptic and mysterious doctrines and deeds, or else overly arduous demands that tax and exceed the human capacity to fulfill. According to that that first contrasting model, exemplified by polytheistic cults and still popular with many contemporary religions, the traditions associated with the faith are invariably entrusted to the care of a remote and secretive clergy who alone are authorized to interpret them and to legislate, while the masses must content themselves with superficial comprehension and blind fidelity.
On the other hand, the mitzvot are not to be regarded as difficult and grueling requirements that are fundamentally opposed to human nature and therefore beyond average human capabilities. If the Torah is to be a Torah of life, then it must relate to all of the people and to their lives, and must be completely within their reach.
THE STARTLING READING OF THE IBN EZRA
This above reading follows the outline of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) who maintains that "wondrous" means hidden or mysterious, while "distant" implies over the "Great Ocean where a man cannot go because of the water's dark depth". Thus, the Torah is neither mysterious and incomprehensible, nor overwhelmingly difficult to perform. Rather, the mitzvot are upon one's lips and in one's heart, within reach and accessible, for "the main purpose of all of the mitzvot is to penetrate the heart. Some mitzvot require verbalization ("upon your lips") in order to fortify the heart; others require actions in order to remember with one's words" (commentary to 30:14).
While the Ibn Ezra's formulation is readily meaningful to any adherent of Judaism, a faith that champions involved study and informed practice from all of its adherents, his remarks are nevertheless startling. Often, as observant Jews, we relate (rather one dimensionally) to the mitzva acts as Divinely willed and therefore requiring no further justification for their fulfillment. That is surely the case – the foundation stone upon which all else rests – but it is not the entire story. Ibn Ezra calls our attention to a danger that is the potential scourge of every deed-based tradition: precisely because there is a demand placed upon the adherent to fulfill an act, be it ritual or moral, he or she can easily become lost in the intricacies and details of the deed while consistently failing to internalize its transformative effects. In other words, we can become skilled practitioners of the faith while our hearts remain unmoved and impassive to its calls. Emphasizing the importance of sincerity and authenticity in our relationship with God, Ibn Ezra reverses the traditional order of things. Mitzva acts are only mandated by God because they have the potential to arouse words; words are only meaningful because they have the power to stir our emotions and thoughts, and the goal of it all is to transform the spirit and soften the adamant human heart.
IN LIGHT OF THE TEN UTTERANCES
Ibn Ezra's comments on our passage can be more fully appreciated in light of his introductory remarks prefacing his interpretation of the Ten Utterances that occur in Sefer Shemot/Exodus 20. There, he discusses the significance of the first command, the imperative to recognize God as the Liberator from Egypt:
Concerning the first utterance of "I am God your Lord Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage"…realize that all of the mitzvot fall into one of three categories: they are either mitzvot of the heart, of speech, or mitzva acts. Mitzvot of the heart are further broken down into two categories: positive mitzvot and negative mitzvot. Examples of positive mitzvot of the heart are to "love God your Lord…" (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:5), to cleave to Him (Devarim 11:1), to revere His glorious name (Devarim 28:58), and to love one's fellow as oneself (VaYikra/Leviticus 19:18). Negative commands of the heart include the prohibition of hating one's fellow in one's heart, or being vengeful and bearing a grudge (VaYikra/Leviticus 19:17-18). Mitzvot concerning speech are also positive or negative. Thus there is the command to recite the Shema (Devarim 6:4-9), to bless God after partaking of a meal (Devarim 8:10), the Priestly benediction (Numbers/BeMidbar 6:22-27), the confession concerning tithes (Devarim 26:12-15), and many more besides. Negative commands of speech include bearing false witness (Shemot/Exodus 20:16), not to blaspheme (Shemot 22:27), not to curse the "deaf" VaYikra 19;14), etc. Mitzva acts, positive and negative, are abundant, and there is no need to offer examples of them.
THE COMMANDS OF THE HEART ARE THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS THAT ARE MORE HONORED THAN ANY OF THE OTHERS. Many of us are accustomed to think that there is no harm in improper thoughts, excepting with respect to idolatrous beliefs. In fact, idolatrous thoughts are the most grave, (but improper thoughts are not inconsequential). Behold, doesn't the verse relate that "God detests six things…", one of them being "a heart that formulates evil plans" (Mishle/Proverbs 6:16)? In a similar vein, it states that "you have done well for desiring that in your heart" (Divrei HaYamim/Chronicles 2:6:8), and also "God, deal kindly with those that are good and with those whose hearts are upright" (Tehillim/Psalms 125:4), "that their hearts should be whole" (Melachim/Kings 1:8:61), "I am God who searches the heart" (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 17:10), and finally "Man sees only with his eyes, but God sees into the heart" (Shemuel/Samuel 1:16:7).
RECONSIDERING THE MATTER
Concluding the thought, Ibn Ezra states:
This first of the Ten Utterances is the foundation for all of the other nine things that follow, and it is a command of the heart. The meaning of this commandment is to believe, to have belief of the heart that admits no doubts, that this honored Name that is written but never read is alone his God…
Thus, proffers Ibn Ezra, God commands acts and recitations, but what He desires is the heart. Of course, the peril of this remarkable view is that it may be misconstrued as attempting to recast Judaism as fostering a form of "justification by faith", but that is not at all the intent of the Ibn Ezra. God's laws are immutable, His commands eternal, and the main part of His Torah is concerned with deeds and not dogmas. Having said that, we may honestly acknowledge that while ritual acts and moral deeds certainly have validity in and of themselves, since they represent the will of the Creator, nevertheless the complete religious personality is the one who can not only perform those deeds, but use them to reshape and recast his or her character to become an authentic servant of God. Put differently, "good Jewish hearts" divorced from proper Jewish deeds may be an unsettling and ultimately unsustainable form of contemporary Jewish living, but the prospect of Jews busy with the right deeds but untouched by them to become better and more Godly people is equally distressing.
As Rosh HaShana and the season of teshuva fast approach, Ibn Ezra's words become even more charged with meaning and relevance. The essence of Rosh HaShana is the acknowledgement of God as the Sovereign, the Creator Who is not only all-powerful but all-knowing as well, the Provider Who alone can give life and sustain it. Rosh HaShana is a time of introspection because God the King sits in judgment and dispenses justice. But the theme of desiring life, of choosing the good and of living cognizant of God's presence and bound by His commands, those very ideas that resonate throughout our Parasha, also constitute some of the core ideas of the season. As the Mishna in Tractate Rosh HaShana states: "On Rosh HaShana all of humanity passes before Him just as sheep, as the verse (Tehillim/Psalms 33:15) states "He fashions their hearts together, He understands all of their deeds". Let us hope and pray that the coming year brings all of us, all of Israel and all of humanity much health, happiness, success, peace and spiritual growth. LeShana Tova Tikatevu veTeichateimu. May all of us be inscribed in the Book of Life.