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Torah as the Totality of God's Will

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )


"Who is the wise man that may understand this, and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken that he may declare it? Why has the land perished, burnt up like a wilderness that none pass through? And God said, 'Because they have forsaken my Torah, which I set before them, and have not obeyed My Voice, nor walked therein.' "(Jeremiah 9:11-12)

The question of why the Holy Temple was destroyed and the land left desolate was posed to the Sages and the prophets (Talmud - Nedarim 81a). None could explain until God Himself revealed that it was a result of having forsaken the Torah. The Talmud continues that the failure to listen to God's voice and walk in the Torah's ways refers to their failure to recite the blessings over the Torah.

Rabbeinu Yonah asks how this seemingly obvious fact - that the Torah was forsaken - could have eluded the Sages and prophets? To his question we can add others. The Talmud in Yoma says that the first Temple was destroyed because of immorality, murder and idolatry. Why, then, did Jeremiah mention only the failure to make a blessing over Torah study? Moreover, where did the Sages see in the verse itself that it refers to the failure to make a blessing rather than total abandonment of the Torah?

Rabbeinu Yonah answers that in fact the generation learned Torah constantly and fulfilled the mitzvot. That is why the Sages did not recognize that they had forsaken the Torah. But if so, how did they fall to such a level that they committed the three cardinal sins? Why didn't their Torah learning protect them? To this God replied: their Torah learning was lacking, as seen from their neglect of the blessing over their learning.


Let us try to understand what dimension the blessing adds to Torah learning and how this deficiency is hinted to in the verse itself. Isaiah (Isaiah 28:10) castigated the Jewish people for serving God, "Command by command, line by line, a little here, and a little there." His rebuke was based on their failure to integrate the observance of all the mitzvot into a unified service of God. Just as God is One, so, too, is His will one. He has one all-encompassing request of man. As the verse says:

"What does the Lord your God ask of you other than that you fear Him?" (Deut. 10:12)

What God demands from us is a constant awareness of His presence and of our obligation to emulate Him and act according to His will. All the 613 mitzvot are in fact expressions of faith in God (see Maharsha to Makkos 23b).

Since we are human beings in a physical world, we cannot relate to God's will without it being broken down into segments that we can deal with individually. Imagine a globe of the world encased in a larger globe. In the outer globe, 613 small windows are cut, each window exposing a small portion of the surface of the enclosed globe. A composite picture from all the windows would yield a view of the globe within. So, too, the individual mitzvot are merely partial manifestations of God's one, all-inclusive will. Each mitzvah is a window through which we glimpse a portion of that will.

Thus there is more to leading a Torah life than merely observing 613 rules. The ultimate goal is to understand the implications of each mitzvah in the context of the overall Divine will that must shape our personality, outlook, and actions. In addition to listening to God's voice and obeying His commands, one must also have listening into God's voice, an understanding of the implications and meaning of those mitzvot in their broader context. Observance of the Torah "rule by rule," without sensitivity to the aspects of Divine will revealed in each mitzvah, is inadequate.

Jacob told Esau, "I lived with Lavan and kept all 613 mitzvot, and didn't learn from his evil deeds." Keeping the 613 mitzvot and not learning from Laban's evil ways are two separate things. Only if one seeks God's will within the mitzvot, can he create a Torah outlook, a character and lifestyle that precludes being influenced by Laban's evil ways.

That was the deficiency of the generation of the Temple's destruction. They kept the mitzvot and learned Torah, but did so perfunctorily.

"...Within their mouths and lips do they honor Me, but their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is as a commandment of men learned by rote." (Isaiah 29:13)


Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz was once invited to be the guest of a certain individual for the Friday night meal. Arriving home with his host, it was immediately obvious that the hostess had fallen asleep from an exhausting Erev Shabbos and had failed to awaken on time to put the finishing touches to the table. Her embarrassed husband berated her for her failure to cover the challahs.

Rabbi Shraga Feivel thought to himself how absurd it was for the man to humiliate his wife for not having covered the challahs - a custom designed to keep the challahs from being "embarrassed" during Kiddush and to teach us how sensitive we must be to another's honor. The host, in his concern for the custom, had completely ignored its implications.

Failure to see the mitzvot as an expression of the totality of God's will, and not as just disjointed commands, leads to the distortion of mitzvot themselves. One year I received an urgent call just before Yom Kippur from a woman in my congregation. Her husband had been told by his doctor that he was suffering from a condition which could prove life-threatening if he fasted. Nevertheless he was determined to fast. I spoke to his doctor and consulted another observant doctor to confirm the diagnosis. There was no doubt that fasting would endanger his life.

I called in the man and explained to him that he must eat on Yom Kippur. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Rabbi, you're a young man and I'm about three times your age, well into my 70s. Since my bar mitzvah I have not eaten on Yom Kippur, and I do not intend to start now." I replied that I could not force him to eat on Yom Kippur, but that as soon as he left my office, I would instruct the gabbai never to give him another honor in our shul. When he asked why he deserved such treatment for being strict with respect to Yom Kippur, I told him that we are prohibited from honoring idol worshipers.

"What idol worship am I guilty of?" he demanded to know. I explained, "The God of Israel has decreed that you must eat on Yom Kippur. If some other god has commanded you to fast, it is irrelevant to me if you call it Zeus, Kemosh or Yom Kippur - all idols are the same."


The Talmud (Yoma 23a) describes how the kohanim used to race up the ramp of the altar to determine who would perform the sacrificial service that day. Once, two kohanim were neck-to-neck, at which point one drew a knife and thrust it into his adversary's heart. Distorting the mitzvot by losing sight of their context transformed the sacrifices into a cult, which led in turn to murder.

God's answer to Jeremiah revealed how people who studied and observed Torah could fall to the depths of immorality, murder and idolatry. "They forsook My Torah" - not the Torah, but My Torah. They failed to hear God's will expressed in the Torah; they failed to hear into My voice. And therefore they failed to walk in the ways of the Torah - they failed to make the Torah an all-encompassing guide.

All of this is symbolized by the failure to make a blessing prior to learning. The blessing begins, "asher kidishanu b'mitzvosav" - the purpose of the mitzvot is to sanctify us and to inspire us to holiness.

The second blessing emphasizes that the purpose of Torah is to make us "yodei shemecha" - those who know and emulate God's character traits in order to develop a complete Torah personality.

And the third blessing emphasizes that God has chosen us from the nations of the world and given us the responsibility to become a nation of Kohanim and a holy people. The blessing enjoins us not to merely hear the words, but to consider their implications.

For this reason we refer to a religious Jew as "observant of Torah and mitzvot." At first glance, the reference to both Torah and mitzvot seems redundant. The intention is to emphasize that in addition to mitzvot, this person observes the Torah, the complete expression of God's will.

The purpose of the Land of Israel is to provide the most conducive, holy environment in which to observe the mitzvot so that we can create a total Torah life for the Jewish people as a whole. But when the Jewish people observe mitzvot perfunctorily, without the intention to live a complete Torah life, then the need for the land is negated, and its physical destruction follows. That is the lesson God revealed to Jeremiah.

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