Parashas Acharei Mos

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Vayikra 18:4-5): “According to My ordinances you shall do, and My statutes you shall observe, to follow them – I am Hashem, your God. And You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which man shall do and by which he shall live – I am Hashem.” Rashi notes that the Torah makes a point of linking both the term “do” and the term “observe” with each of the terms “ordinances” and “statutes.” The Maggid expounds on this link, taking a Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 3:10 as a starting point.
In chapter 9 of sefer Devarim, Moshe presents some points that the Jewish People must keep in mind as they enter Eretz Yisrael. The chapter begins with the words, “Listen, O Yisrael.” The Midrash remarks:
Why did Moshe see fit to preface his words with “Listen, O Yisrael”? The Rabbis say: “It is like a king who betrothed a lady with two pearls, and later discovered that she lost one of them. He told her: ‘You lost one pearl; safeguard the other.’ Similarly, the Holy One Blessed Be He betrothed the Jewish People with ‘we shall do and we shall listen.’ But when they made the golden calf, they lost the ‘we shall do.’ Moshe told them: ‘You lost the “we shall do” – safeguard the “we shall listen.”’ Thus – ‘Listen, O Yisrael.’”
The Maggid, in analyzing this Midrash, explains the difference between “we shall do” and “we shall listen.” If a servant is told by his master to perform a certain job, he will listen to his master regardless of whether the job will yield him personal benefit. He has to obey because he is under his master’s dominion. And thus he will tell his master: “I will listen to what you said.” But if a doctor prescribes for his patient a certain treatment, the patient will respond: “I will do as you said.” His decision to undergo the treatment is not aimed at satisfying the doctor. Rather, he is acting out of self-interest; had he known beforehand of the treatment’s beneficial effects, he would have adopted it on his own.
Now, when the Jewish People gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they were purged of the defilement that the primeval serpent had injected into man (Yevamos 103b), and were thus purified to the point where they all reached the level of prophecy. Thus, the Torah states (Devarim 5:4): “Face to face did Hashem speak with you on the mountain.” Because of their lofty level, they perceived the inner workings of the soul and grasped intellectually the rationale behind the entire Torah.
It is in this vein that we say in the Dayeinu poem in the Haggadah: “If He had brought us near [to Him] at Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us.” The Jews at Sinai did not need to actually receive the Torah, for they already grasped on their own all its laws and their beneficial effects. They understood that if a person disregards these laws, he is cutting himself off from life. Hence, when they affirmed that they would follow the Torah, they said: “We shall do and we shall listen.” They first said “we shall do,” reflecting, as in the example of the patient above, their understanding that doing what the Torah says would benefit them. But afterward they added “we shall listen,” to stress that although they saw the benefits of the Torah’s laws, their Torah observance would not be driven by self-interest, but rather by a pure desire to fulfill Hashem’s will.
After the sin of the golden calf, the primeval defilement re-entered them, and their minds became muddled. They no longer perceived the inner workings of the soul, and thus lost their grasp of the beneficial effects of the Torah’s laws. Indeed, some of the Torah’s laws now seemed burdensome. Moshe therefore told them: “You lost the ‘we shall do’ – safeguard the ‘we shall listen.’” We lost the understanding to accept the Torah due to our own appreciation of its benefits. Still, Moshe told us, we should at least follow the Torah in the way that a servant obeys the orders of his master.
We now return to the passage from our parashah. The passage speaks of “ordinances” (mishpatim) and “statutes” (chukim). The term “statutes” refers to directives whose rationale we do not understand; regarding these directives, it is more natural to speak of “listening” rather than “doing.” By constrast, “ordinances” are directives whose rationale we can clearly see; regarding them it is natural to speak of “doing.” Accordingly, the first verse of our passage pairs the ordinances with the exhortation “you shall do” and the statutes with the exhortation “you shall observe.” But then the second verse links both the term “do” and the term “observe” with the terms “ordinances” and “statutes” together. Here, the Torah is teaching us the proper attitude toward mitzvos. On the one hand, regarding the ordinances, even though we understand their rationale, it is incumbent on us to see to it that our compliance is driven not by self-interest, but rather by a desire to obey Hashem’s command. On the other hand, regarding the statues, even though we do not understand their rationale, it is incumbent upon us to believe that they are indeed intended for our benefit.
The above idea is reflected in the way the Torah tells us, at the end of chapter 6 of sefer Devarim, to answer the wise son’s question about the mitzvos. The wise son asks (Devarim 6:20): “What are the testimonies, and statutes, and ordinances, that Hashem your God has commanded you?” In answering him, we should begin (ibid. 6:21): “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand.” We should continue relating the events associated with the Exodus and the subsequent entry into Eretz Yisrael. We should then say (ibid. 6:24-25):
Hashem commanded us to do according to all of these statutes, to fear Hashem our God, for our good, all the days, to give us life, as this very day. And it will be a merit for us if we observe to do this entire commandment before Hashem our God, as He commanded us.
The primary intent of the statutes, the intent mentioned first, is that we should fear Hashem our God. But then the Torah tells us also to recognize that the statutes are “for our good … to give us life.” Conversely, regarding the “commandment” – referring to the directives in the Torah whose rationale and benefits we can see (as Rashi explains in his commentary on Bereishis 26:5) – the Torah stresses that it will be a merit for us to follow them simply because “He commanded us.” We should realize that all mitzvos are for our benefit, but, at the same time, when we perform them, we should view them not as a means of achieving personal gain, but rather as a means of showing our devotion to Hashem.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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