Overcoming Ourselves, With God’s Help

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Torah Awakens Us To Higher Truths

Meshech Hochmah points out an oddity in the first verse of the parsha (originally addressed by Akedat Yitzhak, he says)Moshe Rabbenu says Hashem will reward us in return for following the mishpatim, laws we understand, without mention of the hukkim, laws we do not (or not immediately and intuitively). While he applauds (but does not share) Akedat Yitzhak’s answer, he suggests his own: the forty years in the desert converted the hukkim to mishpatim.

Souls sullied by prohibited foods and/or physical intimacy cannot grasp what the purified soul can, he says, and keeping mitzvot sweeps away those barriers. [He adopts the view such foods and acts affect a person more deeply than just the fact of having violated God’s Will, certainly a prominent view in tradition. Prof. Twersky, zt”l, once pointed out Rambam in a few places seems to think careful consideration of hukkim will also lead to understanding them and their underlying reason, without specifically connecting it to the improvement offered by observance.]

In his view, hukkim are not beyond human understanding, they are beyond those enmeshed in base pleasures. [The idea affects our view of non-Jewish morality, some of which Meshech Hochmah would say is shaped by those who propound the morality not recognizing the fuller reality of the world, an awareness they could only achieve by relinquishing their sullying pleasures. It thus also affects the question of whether mitzvot are good for everyone, or just for Jews.]

The Blessing After Food and Before Torah

Our parsha, 8;10, has the source verse for the only universally agreed beracha de-oraita, blessing ordained by the Torah itself, Birkat Ha-Mazon, the Grace After Meals. In two places in Massechet Berachot, however, the Gemara sources [or tries to, rishonim disagree] a Biblical obligation to recite a blessing before studying Torah. To explain why we recite a blessing before Torah study and after eating,  Meshech Hochmah delves into reasons for the blessings beyond the simple idea of thanking God for bounty.

The feeling of satiation, being full, can make us self-satisfied, a time when people are prone to forget God, as the Torah stresses two verses later, 8;12. To inoculate us, the Torah has us bless God right then, to remind ourselves what verse eighteen does, God is the One Who gives the strength to achieve whatever we accomplish.

With Torah study, the danger comes at the beginning. Most of us bring selfish goals to our study, as Pesahim 68b says, to become wiser or to win renown. Without a kickoff reminder the real and best focus of Torah study is to sustain the Jewish soul (he writes ha-nefesh ha-Yisraeli, the Israelite soul) and give it long life, the student might become arrogant, use Torah knowledge for selfish purposes—as Avot sees the need to warn, do not make it a spade with which to dig. Torah could become, God forbid, a danger rather than a sam mavet, a (spiritually) deadly poison, in the words of Shabbat 88b.

The obligation of birchot ha-Torah therefore comes before the study, to put us in the right frame of mind (he is assuming the blessing is Biblically obligated, based on the verse in Ha’azinuki shem Hashem ekra, havu godel le-Elokenu, when I call out in the Name of God, give greatness to our Lord). For Meshech Hochmah, it explains Nedarim 81a, where the Gemara questions why the children of Torah scholars are often not themselves Torah scholars.

One answer there attributes it to their failure to recite birchot ha-Torah. There are many interpretations, Meshech Hochmah’s seems to be that they did not remember to direct their Torah study to proper motives, so it did not pass to their children.

Once having studied, there is no need for a blessing, because Torah itself imbues the needed lessons. [Sadly, his confidence in the power of Torah to improve us has not always proven true.]

Pleasure Leads Us Astray

The idea Birkat Ha-Mazon puts eating into the proper context explains a passage in Arachin 4a, where the Gemara includes kohanim among those obligated in zimmun, coming together for a joint Birkat Ha-Mazon when three Jews have eaten together. The Gemara puzzles over the need to lay out something obvious—why shouldn’t they be obligated in zimmun?– and answers that kohanim eat kodashim, sacrifices, and we might have thought the atoning quality of the sacrifices would cover the Grace need. For Meshech Hochmah, the Gemara means we might have thought the sanctified nature of the eating would prevent any bad outcomes. It therefore made a point of their need to join the zimmun, because all eating, even sanctified eating, has a physical element that can lead down the wrong path.

The challenge of channeling the physical for the right purposes comes up in Rosh Ha-Shanah 28a, regarding a person who vowed to refrain from receiving any benefit from a certain spring. S/he can nonetheless immerse in the spring for the sake of taharah, becoming ritually purified, in the winter, because the water is cold, the air is cold, the person immersing has no physical pleasure; in the summer, despite the mitzvah element, the person will also enjoy the fact of the cold water, and the vow says s/he cannot.

Although the fact of directing an action to a religious purpose is not enough to remove the physical element, for food, a berachah afterwards can help do the trick.

In a Loving Relationship, Only the Big Stuff Gets Sweated

In the middle of chapter ten of Devarim, Moshe tells the Jewish people “all” Hashem wants of them is to fear God, walk in all God’s ways, love God, serve God with all their hearts and souls. It sounds like a lot, where Moshe makes it sound not so daunting. Meshech Hochmah builds his reading off Tanhuma Noah 19, a Midrash intent on how a child and servant experience the same task differently.

A child fulfills duties towards a parent with joy, confident parental love will paper over any flaws in what s/he did; the child can relax into the task, because success—in the form of parental praise– is almost guaranteed. A servant feels no such security and therefore serves the master with some fear and trepidation.

Verses suggest the contrast characterizes the Jewish people and the nations of the world. Tehillim 2;1 wonders why the nations of the world are concerned, and at the end of the Psalm, verses 11-12, calls for them to serve God with fear, rejoice with trembling. David was warning them, the Midrash says, to be careful in all they do, because they do not have the cushion the Jewish people enjoy. For whom a later verse, 100;2, says “serve God with happiness, come before him with joy.”

Meshech Hochmah understands our verse to call for the Jew to have both, to fear God and walk in all God’s ways on the one hand, the manner of an oved mi-yir’ah, one who serves out of fear of missing some detail, as well as to love God with all one’s heart. [He does not explain further; to me, he means Jews, too, should have yir’ah when striving to walk in all of God’s ways, to do their best to get it fully right, and fear missing anything, but also allow the emotion of ahavah to fill their hearts, so they relax into the confidence of Divine love. To me, he is saying the Tanhuma should inform Jews’ whole religious experience.

They should recognize the greater push to accomplishment that can come from yir’ah, and combine it with the security and confidence that comes from ahavah.]

Torah guides us away from the attractions that mislead our morality, such as by supplying a beracha to focus our Torah study and eating in the right ways, all in a framework where we should try to do it all, knowing God loves Jews for whatever they do accomplish.

About Gidon Rothstein

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