Shabbos Parashas Tetzaveh – Sefer HaMiddos

Prologue to Sefer HaMiddos, Part 2
We previously quoted R. Chananiah ben Akasha’s teaching: “The Holy One Blessed Be He wished to bring merit to Yisrael, therefore He gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvos. As it is written: ‘Hashem desired, for the sake of his [Yisrael’s] righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’” We explained that this teaching relates also to matters of basic human decency: Hashem took the code of honorable conduct that we inherited from our holy forefathers and included it as part of the Torah, so that we could receive reward for adhering to it. At the same time, in one sense, there would have been an advantage in not including this code in the Torah as a command. For then the evil inclination would not militate against it, so that we could maintain a firm hold on it, like an inheritance passed down from our ancestors. The moral code would be second nature to us, as if it were implanted within us from birth. But now that the moral code has been included in the Torah, the evil inclination fights to cause us to stray from it.
Let us return now to the Midrash we presented previously. Yeshayah declares in Hashem’s Name: “It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov, for you have toiled for Me, Yisrael.” The Midrash expounds: “All day they engage in business and do not get tired. They do their work and do not get tired. Yet when they recite the prayers they get tired! Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘“It is not to Me that you called, Yaakov.” Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Why? Because “you toiled for Me, Yisrael.”’” Given what we have explained, we can grasp a key facet of what the Midrash is saying.
We can bring out the point with a parable. In a certain city, one of the community leaders, a wealthy and generous man, would regularly give lavish gifts to the community Rabbi on Jewish holidays and other special occasions. In time, the Rabbi’s daughter reached marriageable age. The Rabbi approached a matchmaker and asked him to check whether the rich man had a sharp-witted son whom he would be willing to match with his daughter. The matchmaker approached the rich man with the proposal and the matter was settled. Soon afterward the wedding was made. The Rabbi was extremely happy. He thought to himself: “My son-in-law’s father spent a lot of money on me even before his son married my daughter. Now that we are related through marriage, he surely will be generous toward me.” But in the end the opposite happened. A strife developed between the young couple, and eventually the rich man and the Rabbi came to hate each other intensely. So when the time came when the rich man usually would send the Rabbi a gift, he sent the Rabbi nothing. The Rabbi lamented: “If only I hadn’t made a match between this fellow’s son and my daughter! Then he would continue giving to me generously as he was accustomed to do. But now he has turned into my enemy.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem says to us: “I gained honor and greatness from the fine character traits you displayed while you were in your original status of ‘Yaakov.’ But now that I have given you the Torah and elevated you to the status of ‘Yisrael,’ you consider honorable conduct a burden. Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov! Perhaps it would have better had I not included the glorious code of conduct that you followed as part of the Torah.” We can understand similarly Hoshea’s declaration in Hashem’s Name (Hoshea 8:12): “I wrote for them the great principles of My Torah, but they were regarded as something foreign.” Hashem is saying: “I gave them Torah and mitzvos in order to bring them merit, with their adherence to their regular moral code now being an act of obedience to My command for which they would receive reward. But afterward, the opposite happened. Their previous moral code is now foreign to them, and they have become estranged from Me, more distant than they were before. Would it be that I had not come to recognize you, Yaakov!”
The Rambam, in the sixth of his Eight Chapters, discusses the difference between the mitzvos that a person can understand with his own intellect and those that a person becomes aware of only through a Divine communication. Regarding the first set of mitzvos, it is fitting for a person to reflect on them and gain an understanding that it is just and right to observe them, simply on account of his being a member of the human race. By contrast, with the second set of mitzvos, a person should take the attitude that he is observing them only because Hashem commanded him to do so. Thus, in Sifra, Kedoshim (quoted by Rashi on Vayikra 20:26), our Sages teach: “A person should not say, ‘I don’t want to eat pork.’ Rather, he should say, ‘I want to eat pork, but what can I do? My Father in heaven has decreed against it.’” There is no such teaching regarding the prohibitions against murder or stealing. A person can understand with his own intellect that he should avoid murder, stealing, robbing, lying, and so on, even if he were not commanded to avoid these acts. Similarly, a person can understand with his own intellect that he should be kind, compassionate toward others, modest, and patient and tolerant, and should conduct himself honorably in all respects.
In light of what we have explained, we can understand a rebuke that Moshe directed toward us in Hashem’s Name (Devarim 32:21): “They provoked Me with no god, aggravated Me with their absurdities. So I shall provoke them with a non-nation, and with a vile people I shall aggravate them.” When Hashem declares that we provoke Him with no god, he is saying that we provoke Him through acts that we should realize are wrong even without God telling us not to engage in them. And when He says that we aggravate Him with our absurdities, He saying that we anger Him through acts that we should recognize on our own as absurd and counter to common sense. And Hashem continues by saying that He will deal with us measure for measure: Just as we departed from the ways of decent human beings, He will provoke us with a non-nation – with a vile assemblage of people that does not fit the description of a normative nation.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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