What’s Inside Matters, Too

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ki Tavo

We live after almost two hundred years of important rabbis and poskim finding ways to accommodate those who have left observance, let alone are not observing for the exact right motives. R. Yehudah’s quote of Rav, Pesachim 50b, that a Jew should observe the Torah without perfect motive, because it will build to better motives, has won the day; combined with judging others favorable and the Western ethic of not interfering in other’s lives, we live in a world where most of us favor just “doing our own thing,” and not critiquing others, at least regarding observance.

A trigger warning: Kli Yakar in this comment stands in opposition to this perspective, I assume for reasons having to do with events of his time.

What Can’t Be Reason For Punishment

Towards the end of the tokhacha, Devarim 28;58-59, Moshe warns that if we are not careful to observe the entire Torah, Hashem will send extraordinary punishments. Kli Yakar cannot imagine Moshe would set such a high standard; he uses a beautiful phrase R. Yochanan used in Ketubbot 111b, lo neicha le-marayhu, their Master is not pleased that you should say such a thing. It demands too much to expect people to keep everything, on the hook for terrible punishments for the smallest misstep.

In addition, I skipped a phrase from verse 58 that sticks out. After the Torah says to keep all the mitzvot, it says “that you may fear this glorious and fearful Name,” Hashem. Why stick that in, asks Kli Yakar, if the verse was focused on a lack of observance?

One more question starts him on the road to his answer. Shabbat 138b infers from the word ve-hifla that the Jewish people would one day lose contact with the wisdom of the Torah, because Yeshayahu 29;14 uses the same root when it says ve-avdah chokhmat chakhamav, a phrase Kli Yakar will investigate but for now can mean, the wisdom of its wise men will be lost.

A challenging idea, Hashem would deny wisdom to people, abandon them to the fate of their sins.

Sometimes Observance Is Problematic

He solution lies in an assertion we likely find counterintuitive: observance for reasons other than fear of God—his examples are that it is for the sake of some external value and/or out of fear of some human being—causes a chillul Hashem (he says beli safek, without a doubt!), and Hashem punishes such people for their evil thoughts, especially because others who see this will complain about Hashem.

He moves on to the consequences, but does not explain how he can say this, when he knows, no less than we do,  Pesachim’s encouragement to keep the Torah for lesser reasons, because mi-tokh shelo lishma ba lishma, it builds on itself and leads us to do it for its own sake. [I think he would say he was referring to motives that are actively wrong, an idea Tosafot had offered, because another Gemara says learning and observing she-lo lishmah is deeply negative. Tosafot says one who learns le-kanter, to find ways to attack the system or to prove other Torah scholars wrong.

Still, he has expanded that category considerably, without explanation. I again think he means these people who observe for external reasons also do not observe perfectly, and end up acting in ways embarrassing to Torah and, as it were, to Hashem.]

What is about to come is best understood, then, as a reaction to people who seem observant, but without any true fear of God in their observance. The flaws and lacks that creep into their observance will reflect badly on the Torah system, and are therefore a chillul Hashem.

Don’t Teach!

In such times, Torah scholars should withdraw from teaching, says Kli Yakar, an idea that sounds foreign to us yet he cites from Berakhot 63a: in a generation where Torah is not beloved, keep your Torah to yourself, rather than teach it. He notes the Gemara doesn’t say a generation that does not learn Torah, it says where it is not dear to them, Kli Yakar is sure because they are learning for other reasons.

If their observance is purely cultural, social, political, or some other non-Torah value, if it lacks the fear of God essential to the system, adding knowledge is a detriment. More, he believes Hashem does not welcome such people’s observance (!), and will cause them to lose their Torah. Nor can the Torah teacher turn it another way, says Kli Yakar, because there is no way to effect internal change in such people.

Withholding knowledge is the solution in Yeshayahu, the wisdom of its wise people will be lost. Not that they will lose it, but the populace will, because better they struggle in the dark of ignorance than be taught Torah they will misuse for wealth and honor, like Kli Yakar’s generation (he says).

The Needed Fear and How to Find It

The verse spoke of fear of God precisely because that was the missing piece. Instead—he says as is true in our times—people keep the Torah to find favor in the eyes of those who will honor and enrich them. By withholding the Torah, he seems to think, the people will find their way to fear of God faster.

We clearly live in a world that has chosen another strategy, where many dedicated teachers will tell you they have found ways to bring people to fear of God, and it starts with teaching and accepting people even while they observe for fully lesser motives. Yet Kli Yakar’s view seems to me still worth considering, at least to better understand the theory behind it. Observance for inappropriate reasons is more than flawed, it is detrimental to the picture of Torah in the world, I think he means.

[Anything more is speculation, but if we consider “culturally Orthodox” Jews today, I see how they hurt the cause of Torah and mitzvot in many ways, because they insist on a Judaism that matches their cultural expectations, ones that are not always in sync with the Torah’s, and put pressure on rabbis and poskim to accommodate them. Of course, on the other hand, they are violating Shabbat less, eating less non kosher, intermarrying less, etc., than if they were lost completely. It’s a complicated calculus, one that I think many today are overly confident that it goes in one direction; Kli Yakar takes the other side, and its often worth remembering the other side.]

Upholding the Torah, Or Violating It All

Moving on to Chatam Sofer, let’s see his reaction to the series of curses the Jews were to announce on Mount Eval (with the parallel blessings on Mount Gerizim), Devarim 27;11-26. The last one calls down wrath on he who shall not yakim, a word the English I saw renders “confirm,” but which tradition took more in the sense of establish or uphold, the whole Torah.

Ramban cited Yerushalmi Sotah 7;4, the verse addresses those who have the ability to impact others who are not currently keeping/observing, or, worse, cause others to fail to observe, such as Torah scholars who might effectively remonstrate with officials or other functionaries.

Chatam Sofer dutifully quotes the idea, but prefers another reading. Back in Shelach, the Torah referred to one who erred and failed to keep the entire Torah, leading Ramban to claim it was a failure to keep one mitzvah that counted as all of Torah, avodah zarah, worshipping a power other than God. Shabbat should have been an equally viable candidate, since Rashi to Chullin 5a points out that violation of Shabbat denies God’s Creation of the World.

Deliberate/Unwitting, Public/Private

The difference explains both that verse and gives us a new sense of the verse here. Shabbat violation denies God only when deliberate, where any act of avodah zarah, witting or unwitting, inherently subscribes to a belief system at odds with Torah.

In our sequence, verse fifteen cursed one who made an object of worship and put it in secret, because avodah zarah is a full problem even in secret. The last verse, asher lo yakim, is about Shabbat violation in public, because only such desecration fails to uphold the Torah as a whole.

It Needs to be Conscious, Too

Not so revolutionary, except Chatam Sofer now adds in his certainty that it is not enough to observe Shabbat in the sense of not violating it, a Jew must recite kiddush at the advent of the day, must declare s/he is desisting from creative labor as a matter of the mitzvah of Shabbat. Without, such a Jew has not done anything, he says. To him, this is an added meaning of Rosh HaShanah 27a’s idea that zakhor and shamor were said together; without the zakhor, the declaration of one’s commitment to this observance as observance, the shamor, the refraining from Shabbat violation loses much of its value. He tells us he expounded on the idea at length when remonstrating with Jews over their Shabbat observance, meaning it was a live issue in his time, people who were not violating Shabbat in public, perhaps, but weren’t keeping it, either.

A tantalizing comment of his: When the Men of the Great Assembly originally wrote the Shemoneh Esrei, they had no berakha decrying evildoers, because the one praising the righteous by implication denigrated the others. When heresy became rampant, Rabban Gamliel had Shemuel HaKatan add ve-Lamalshinim, an explicit call for the downfall of the evil. So, too, with Shabbat observance, the significance of declaring it a function of one’s faith and commitment has risen. An apparent response to people who were technically not violating Shabbat, but not out of the faith commitments they were supposed to bring to it.

Not to end on a down note, he also quotes R. Chiyya b. Abba in the name of R. Yochanan, Shabbat 118b, whoever observes Shabbat (properly and fully, I think he means), even if he worships other powers like in the generation of Enosh, is forgiven.

For Chatam Sofer, Shabbat had become a key issue, its public violation an abandonment of all of Torah, but its fullest observance only achieved with conscious intent to keep the day designated by God.

The Kohen of Your Time and Bikkurim

When the Torah describes the bringing of first fruits, 26;3 says the farmer will come to the kohen “who will be in that time,” a phrase that was more understandable back in 17;9. There, tradition spotted a warning to obey the Torah scholars of each era, meant to forestall any Jew’s refusal to respect them because they didn’t match the qualifications of previous generations. With bikkurim, though, Netziv wonders about what Rashi means when he says here, too, the Torah wants us to know we have only the kohen of our particular generation. Ramban raises it, too, what does the kohen’s stature matter, that the verse has to tell us to work with this kohen.

Netziv finds the start of the answer in the words the farmer sayshiggadeti ha-yom la-Shem Elokekha, I have declared this day to Hashem your God,” where of course it should have been our God. He says al korchakh, necessarily (I love that word, because the people who use it then offer an idea others did not say, suggesting the word does not mean what they think it means), the declaration here relates to Tanchuma Ki Tavo’s view the bikkurim are a vehicle of blessing for the Jewish people.

If so, it is similar to a sacrifice, another vehicle of blessing, except sacrifices go on the altar, directly to God, as it were. Bikkurim are given to a kohen, who owns it (they are mammon be’alim, the property of their owner), and that is why the Torah thinks we might worry that the blessing depends on the quality of the kohenKetubbot 105b tells us giving benefit to a Torah scholar is akin to giving bikkurim, and with Torah scholars, certainly quality counts.

We say Elokekha, your God, because it is the kohen’s representation of God that earns us the blessing. Therefore, the verse stresses whoever is the kohen in our time will suffice, we can give him our bikkurim, need not worry beyond that.

[His last words are “that the righteous person is according to the generation,” which a bit cuts the other way, we have to give the bikkurim to our kohen, to receive whatever bracha, which may indeed be lesser than another generation’s, but it’s our problem, because the kohen is a reflection of us. We have this kohen because we’re this kind of generation.]

What’s inside of us matters: for Kli Yakar, we only “earn” the right to Torah knowledge if we seek to observe the Torah out of true relationship with Hashem; for Chatam Soferavodah zarah is a huge problem regardless of motive, where Shabbat violation is only its fullest problem in public, yet also needs to be done out of proper motivation; and, for Ha’amek Davar, our kohen’s qualities do not matter as much as we might fear, the blessings of bikkurim will come regardless.

About Gidon Rothstein

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