“Making The Final Commitment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses continues to deliver his final message to the Jewish people.

Shortly before they would enter the Promised Land, Moses calls all the people together, including the elders, to affirm their commitment to G-d and to His Torah.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 27:1, reports,וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הָעָם לֵאמֹר,  שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם, Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.” The people were then instructed to inscribe the entire Torah on twelve huge stones, and bring offerings on Mount Grizim and Mount Ebal (see Re’eh 5768-2008), where they were to affirm their loyalty to G-d.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz writes in Da’at Sofrim that from this point in the Torah until the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses conveys a special message to the Children of Israel. Moses now emphasizes that upon their arrival in Canaan, a land that is currently bereft of holiness and abounding in evil, the people will have a singular responsibility to transform it into a Holy land.

Moses describes, in the name of the living G-d, what the future will bring, both the good and the evil, a future that will be both encouraging and intimidating. During part of these admonitions, Moses is joined by Joshua, the elders, the priests and Levites, who will be replacing Moses when he passes on and who will serve as the new teachers and instructors of the people.

Despite the fact that Moses was joined by the elders on many previous occasions, the new mentors are mentioned again at this juncture because until now these newly anointed leaders were seen by the people only as disciples of Moses. In this way, the People of Israel would grow accustomed to the fact that the new teachers have now assumed the primary responsibility of leadership.

As noted above, Moses begins his message by declaring,שָׁמֹר אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם, observe the entire commandment that I command you this day–using the infinitive form of the word “Shamor,” to guard.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes, that now that the Torah has been given, it is the people’s responsibility to “guard it.”

It is now necessary for the people

to ensure that it [the Torah] is constantly studied and known and carried out, and, moreover, this is not to be the task just of the leaders and elders, the representatives of the nation, but of the whole people as well. Each one separately and all together are responsible for it. That is why Moses took the “Elders of Israel” at his side and placed the whole nation under the obligation to keep the Torah. But he called the now completed Torah “Mitzvah”-one commandment, [implying that] all the laws together form the one mission for which Israel was appointed to fulfill its world-historic “task.”

Rabbi Rabinowitz in Daat Sofrim, notes that the Torah uses the infinitive form of the Hebrew word “Shamor,” because the message is not only intended for the people of the current generation who actually heard Moses’ words, or to any specific group of people, but to all future generations who must become learned in the Mitzvot. The use of the singular form “mitzvah,” rather than plural word “mitzvot”-commandments, is understood by Rabbi Rabinowitz to further underscore that all mitzvot are of equal value.

The choice of the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” that is in the singular in this context, may be better understood from a lesson that is learned from the Jewish conversion process. During the conversion interview the prospective convert is asked a series of questions: Do you renounce any other faith that you may have observed previously? Do you know that the People of Israel are reviled and persecuted people? Are you prepared to join in their fate? Do you agree to observe the entire Torah, both the major mitzvot and minor mitzvot, all those that you already know, and those that you have yet to learn?

The Torah in this verse uses the singular form of the Hebrew word “mitzvah,” in order to convey a powerful message to Israel. Moses, in the name of G-d, instructs the people to observe the entire Torah as if it were a single mitzvah. The generation that is about to enter the land of Israel, who saw all the miracles, must observe all the mitzvot at once. While one can “study” the separate procedures that are part of the process of manufacturing a particular machine, in order to operate the machine it is necessary to know the function of all the parts to make them work together.

The Torah’s emphasis is not just on emotions and feelings, but on observance. Even if one fails to master all the Torah, a commitment must be made to those mitzvot that are “not yet” understood and remain to be wrestled with and resolved. It’s not enough to feel like a good Jew in one’s heart, one has to live, act, behave and practice Jewishly.

Many years ago, I attended a wedding that took place at the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights. As part of the veiling ceremony, the bride’s face was covered with a very thick, opaque veil. Two women behind me were rather offended by the ceremony, and thought that the use of the thick veil was absolutely primitive and barbaric, all the while making loud snide comments about this Chassidic custom.

Coming from the Bronx, I could not restrain myself. I turned and said hostilely to one of the women, “Lady, had this ceremony been taking place on the Himalayas with the guru presiding, you would have said ‘Oh how quaint, how interesting, I wonder what it means?’ But, because it’s a Jewish wedding, you have nothing but disdain for it!” The woman responded, first addressing me as, “Young man,”–something that was true 30 years ago, and saying, “I’ll have you know that I feel like a very good Jew in my heart!”

At that point, I should have simply stifled, and walked away. But, then again, I am from the Bronx. I growled at her and said, “Lady, feeling like a good Jew in your heart, doesn’t make you any more a good Jew, than feeling like an astronaut in your heart puts you on the moon!” Needless to say she did not appreciate my “clever” response.

Truthfully, feeling like a good Jew in one’s heart is very important. But, it is simply not enough. To be part of Jewish eternity, one must be a knowledgeable Jew, not simply a “cardiac” Jew. It is important to master as much information as possible about the Jewish life and Jewish law so that one can practice and participate in Jewish life intelligently and meaningfully.

Perhaps another understanding of the Torah’s use of the singular word “mitzvah”-commandment here means that all observance should be regarded in one’s eyes as if there were one single mitzvah. One must not allow oneself to become overwhelmed by stressing all 613 commandments and the numerous derivative commandments. Focus on one at a time, and do the best you can.

This was the message that Moses conveyed 3,328 years ago. It is as fresh and as relevant today as it was then.

May you be blessed.