Get Ready to Hear What Hashem Wants of Us

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 10 Part 1

Ran opens the tenth Drasha with Devarim 10:12 (this Drasha seems to have been first delivered on Parashat Ekev, 1361). The verse wonders, loosely, “Now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you other than to fear Hashem, follow all His ways, love Him, and to serve Hashem with all your heart and soul, to follow His mitzvot and statutes, which I command you this day for your benefit.”

Because We Cant Do It on Our Own

Prior essays in this series

By rights, Hashem could have demanded a lot more than “just” fear, Ran reads Moshe as saying. Previously, Moshe had noted and dispelled two false assumptions about our good fortune. Sometimes, we assume we are the sole source of our success, based on our strength, talent, wisdom, cleverness, ambition, or whatever skill we think we bring to the effort.

Ran grants that those are important and necessary, but that Moshe was reminding us that we only have those qualities because Hashem endowed us with them, gave us the strength (or ability) to accomplish those feats (Devarim 8:18).

Other times, we recognize that we didn’t cause our positive outcome. But instead of celebrating Hashem’s bounty, 9;4 points out, we tell ourselves we deserved it. Maybe we couldn’t have defeated that army or found that business deal on our own, but we decide Hashem did it because we’re so profoundly deserving.

Moshe now has to worry he might be too successful, might make us too aware of how little we deserve what Hashem sends us, leading us to despair of ever deserving Hashem’s bounty, or having a way to ensure it. For Ran, our verse–“what does Hashem want from you”– is Moshe’s reassuring us that Hashem asks relatively little.

What can seem like a demand, in other words, can be intended as reassurance. Moshe is not reminding them of the weight of their obligations; he’s showing them how minimal it is compared to what could have been.

Hashems Parental Punishments

The reason Hashem lets us escape with less than what strict justice might require, as Ran sees it, is that Hashem treats us like a parent. He demands and punished only in order to bring, draw, or push us to where we can and ought to be. That means punishment never matches the crime and that it stops as soon as it has its intended effect. (He slips in that Hashem might also punish one group of people to teach others a lesson, but it’s not his focus, so we’ll skip it for now.)

Ran has to concede that punishment in the next world doesn’t fit that rubric, since the soul does not improve (he assumes) and no one sees it to learn from it. It might be, then that sin creates a debt of some sort, which punishment clears. But he insists that’s only after death; this-world punishment is always focused on helping us see our errors and rectify them.

Defining Serious Sin

Ran had established that Moshe’s reference to fear of Hashem is a plea to help people avoid or end hard times, not a demand that they do better. He then moves on to the more difficult question of how Moshe can treat fear of Hashem as if it’s simple. We’ll see that next time, along with the claims about human nature Ran sets up to support his answer; in explaining that issue, he also offers a theory as to how suffering helps us, which we’ll see in two times.

Here, we have room only for a short discussion at the end of the Drasha. Part of what suffering is supposed to do, according to Ran, is spur us to repent for the specific sins we commit. (Note that he doesnt reach for classic remedies like learn or daven better, as many do today. He brings up sins that he sees as the most serious ones to which his audience is falling prey.)

To explain his choice of sins to highlight to his listeners, Ran articulates three criteria by which to evaluate seriousness. There is inherent seriousness, such as the sins we may not transgress even to save our lives. Frequency also heightens the severity of sin, although he doesn’t explain that proposition. Perhaps he means that the more often we commit a sin, the more disregard we show for Hashem’s will.

He made this claim in his halachic writings as well (see his commentary on Rif Yoma 4b), suggesting that it might be better to slaughter an animal on Shabbat (for a person who is ill and requires meat) than have that person eat available non-kosher meat. His reasoning is that slaughtering is one act (and we have to cook the meat anyway, so we’ll be violating Shabbat no matter what), where each bite of non-kosher meat is a separate sin.

Third, sinning with no obvious urge to do so makes it worse. Eating disgusting non-kosher food (his example is ants and the like) flouts the Torah (and Hashem) more than eating tasty and appealing non-kosher food. In the latter case we are yielding to temptation; it doesn’t excuse our behavior, but it mitigates it more than if we disdain Hashem’s commands by eating that which disgusts us.

The Examples of Rans Generation

In his times, unnecessary (and sometimes false) oaths and baseless hatred were the prevalent examples. He closes the drasha with a plea to work on those, so that Hashem would cease the punishments they had experienced (the Black Death, as we’ll see) and bring the good and bounty Hashem prefers.

Those sins still exist but the questions Ran raises go beyond those particular sins. Ran implicitly asks us whether we assume we brought our good fortune all on our own, whether we congratulate ourselves that we deserve that good fortune, whether we see the necessity of fear of Hashem.

Once we grapple with those issues, do we see our sins and, perhaps more challenging, can we see the seriousness of some of those sins? If frequency makes a sin more serious, that would mean our most serious ones are the ones we do all the time. That may mean we have become so accustomed to them as to ignore them. Ordinary psychology might conspire to lead us to miss the very sins for which we most need to repent.

Reading on in the drasha, Ran will offer us a perspective that helps us find our way back to the kind of life and awe of Hashem that can bring the good times for which we hope.

As we’ll start to see next time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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