Eikev: If you listen
This week’s Torah portion, Parshas Eikev, opens and closes with two famous passages in which the Torah teaches us that the Jewish people’s entire fortune depends purely on whether or not they will “listen” to G-d’s commandments. The parsha begins (Deuteronomy 7:12), “And it shall be that if you listen to these laws, and keep them and do them, that Hashem your G-d will keep with you the covenant and the mercy that He swore to your fathers,” and then goes on to describe in details the many blessings that we will enjoy if we obey the commandments. However, Moses concludes with a warning that we must take care not to forget Hashem, and that if we fail to observe the commandments we shall suffer grave punishment, “because you did not listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d.” (8:20)
Similarly, at the end of the parsha (11:13-21) we read one of the most familiar passages in the Torah, best known to us as the second paragraph of the Shema, in which G-d again tells us, “And it will be that if you listen to My commandments… then I shall provide rain… and you will eat and be satisfied.” However, if we fail to obey the commandments, “Then the wrath of G-d shall burn against you…”
Of course, the general principal, that the fate and fortune of the Jewish people depends entirely upon their obedience to G-d’s commandments, is a major theme throughout the Torah, especially in the book of Deuteronomy. However, there is also a more subtle theme in these verses, and that is the emphasis on “listening.” In many critical passages of the Torah, we find a great emphasis placed on “listening” or “hearing.” Of course, the most famous is the opening verse of the Shema (which we read in last week’s Torah portion), “Hear O Israel, Hashem is your G-d, Hashem is One.”
As the commentaries point out, when the Torah instructs us to listen, it is not simply telling us to hear the sounds with our ears, but that we should think about what we hear, that we should be aware of their significance, and that it should make some kind of real difference in our behavior. Thus, we mustn’t just listen to the words of the Torah with our ears, but we must listen with our hearts and minds, so that we are no longer the same people after we have listened as we were before.
The first convert to Judaism was Jethro (Yisro) the father-in-law of Moses. The Torah describes what caused Jethro to join the Jewish nation in one sentence, “And Jethro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that G-d had done for Moses, and for His people Israel, that G-d had brought Israel out of Egypt.” Jethro heard about the miraculous exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and he came to convert. Jethro was certainly not the only one who heard this news, yet he was the only one who really “listened” to the news, with a mind that was fully conscious and aware. So, while everyone else heard the same news, only Jethro truly “heard” what the news actually meant.
This may well be the most basic requirement that G-d demands from us, that we not go through life on auto-pilot and ignore the true meaning of everything we see and hear. Rav Shimon Schwab (Selected Essays pp.63-64) brings this point out with regard to a Talmudic debate with regard to the laws of the Sabbath. The Talmud states that one who violated the Sabbath because he “forgot the essence of the Sabbath” is obligated to bring a sacrifice which atones for inadvertent sin. There is a debate in the Talmud as to the exact meaning of this category of “one who forgot the essence of the Sabbath.” One opinion is that this refers to a Jewish child who was abducted and raised as a gentile. Even though this Jew did not even know that he was Jewish and had no awareness of the laws of the Sabbath, he is still obligated to bring an offering for his violation of the Sabbath because, even in such a circumstance, there is still some degree of guilt that requires atonement. The obvious questions is how can a person in that situation be held responsible at all?
Rav Schwab gives an answer that he heard from R’ Yerucham Levovitz, the famous mashgiach of the Mir yeshiva:
Hashem is “חונן לאדם דעת.” He has planted the power of thinking into the human brain. Even a gentile is expected to ask himself one day, when his mind matures, “Who am I? What am I doing in this world? What’s the purpose of my existence?” And he too will realize that life must have some meaning. In the course of such inquiries, even a tinok shenishbah (captured child) might find out who he really is. Eventually, he might discover that he is really Jewish and what it means to be Jewish. He might discover that there is a Torah, and there is a Shabbos. Therefore, as a human being with a mind, he is not entirely blameless for his failure to keep the Torah. In that case, at least one korban chattas (sin offering) is required to atone for his failure of realization.
This is the obligation of “listening”- an obligation that, in many ways, is logically prior to all other obligations, one that is inherent in the simple fact that, as Rav Schwab puts it, one is “a human being with a mind.” Even if we didn’t have the Torah, even if we never heard of Judaism, or even of G-d, as a human being with a functioning mind we have a moral obligation to pay honest attention to what the world is telling us. This is the model of our ancestor, Abraham, who, surrounded by paganism, came to the recognition of the one G-d through his own intellect. This is the lesson of Jethro, who truly “heard” the news, while everyone else around him was deaf to its true meaning.
It is this that G-d demands from us even after we know the truth. We are to “listen” to His laws, not simply to go through the motions of obeying them, but paying attention to what they mean. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they declared “נעשה ונשמע”- “We will do and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7) As many commentators point out, placing “we will do” before “we will hear” demonstrates that the Jewish people were not referring to the listening necessary for basic compliance with the law. That level of listening is already implicit in “we will do,” as one cannot obey a law that one has not heard. When the Jewish people said, “we will hear,” they were saying that they would not simply obey the laws in a superficial and rote manner, but that they would “listen” to the lessons that the laws teach and that those lessons would change them into better people.
Rabbi Eliezer Abrahamson, Oorah volunteer