Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

Parashat Eikev: Moshe’s Expectations for His Biological and Spiritual Descendants by Yaakov Bieler

August 17, 2011 by  
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Some people do not seem to recognize that they are uniquely gifted.

Some individuals, be they athletes, academics, artists, or political leaders, appear to take for granted qualities with which they happen to be naturally and generously endowed. Sometimes, when speaking to others, these exceptional people convey the impression that they believe that such special qualities by extension should either come naturally to all, or if they have to be developed in others, they should be achieved easily, with a minimum of preparation and exertion. Needless to say, being on the receiving end of this type of exhortation can prove to be maddening and greatly discouraging. We say to ourselves, “How can someone be so insensitive, assuming that everyone is alike, and that the rest of us, who don’t measure up to his/her standards, are either underachieving or unwilling to exert the requisite effort?”

Is Moshe setting the bar too high for the Jewish people due to this type of “myopia”?

Isn’t this precisely what Moshe, as HaShem’s Representative, is saying to the Jewish people in Devarim 10:12-13:

And now Israel, “Mah” (what) is the Lord Your God asking of you?

‘Ki Im’ (nothing more than) 1) to fear the Lord Your God, 2) to walk in all of His Ways, and 3) to love Him, and 4 )to serve the Lord Your God with all of your heart and all of your soul. 5) To observe the commandments of HaShem, and 6) His Statutes that I am commanding you today in order to Do good on your behalf.”

This appears to be a rather formidable list that should hardly be summarily dismissed as easily attainable by even the most spiritually endowed individuals, let alone the immediate descendants of those who had been slaves for hundreds of years .

The Talmud suggests that the tone Moshe assumes in these biblical passages while setting this agenda for the Jewish people reflect his personal point of view.

ChaZa”L seem to have taken note of the somewhat dismissive tone that these verses appear to project, when they presented the following gloss in Berachot 33b and Megilla 25a:

Rabbi Chanina said: All is in Heaven’s Hands, with the exception of one’s fear of Heaven, (the degree of which is freely determined by each individual without outside interference,) as it is said, (Devarim 10:12) “What is the Lord Your God asking of you? Nothing more than[1] to fear the Lord Your God.”[2]

Is the fear of Heaven such a trivial matter? Didn’t Rabbi Chanina say in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: The only thing that HaShem Keeps in His Treasure House is the fear of Heaven? (indicating that it is the sole thing that is Valued by the Divine, and therefore hardly an insignificant quality)

Yes.   The fear of Heaven is a very significant thing. But, as far as Moshe[3] is concerned, it is only a small matter, as Rabbi Chanina said: A parable. When you ask someone for a large vessel and he owns such a vessel, to him it is comparable to owning only a small vessel. However, when you ask someone for a small vessel, and he does not possess even that, it is as if you asked him for a large vessel.

The Talmud condenses the elements in the verse and thereby stresses the “meta-element”, i.e., the fear of God.

The Talmudic passage above appears to assume that rather than presenting the people with six separate goals, Moshe was emphasizing a single religious quality that possesses five dimensions, i.e., 2)-6) are subcategories of 1), fear of Heaven. Apparently, the Rabbis of the Talmud who authored this interpretation of the verses in Devarim 10, posited that the manifestations of requisite fear of Heaven are: following God’s Ways reflected in His Attributes (as in Shemot 34:6-7), loving Him, serving Him wholeheartedly and passionately, and adhering to all of the Tora’s commandments.

Difficulties with the Talmud’s interpretation of these verses.

Nevertheless, at least three obvious problems arise when such an approach is adopted. First, to what extent are we to assume that the Tora is comprised of Moshe’s own words, as opposed to those that at the very least reflect God’s particular, objective expectations of man? Even if we concede that the book of Devarim, Moshe’s valedictory address to the Jewish people prior to his death, is the most likely of the books of the Tora to be Moshe’s own language, particularly in light of Devarim 1:1, 5, as well as anecdotal information appearing in e.g., Ibid., 3:23 ff. and 4:21-22,[4] are we to assume that the point of view expressed with regard to Tora commandments and sensibilities, is exclusively Moshe’s rather than that of HaShem? If indeed Moshe was worthy to have his words recorded in Devarim, shouldn’t we assume that it is due to his having virtually eliminated his personal emotions to the point where HaShem entrusts him to state objective truths, rather than those colored by the prophet’s own perceptions and feelings? Why should the extent to which Moshe personally feels reaching the goal of possessing fear of Heaven does or doesn’t constitute a substantive personal challenge, be reflected in the words of a document that is meant to serve as God’s Communication to the Jewish people?

Furthermore, were we to accept that Devarim 10:12-13 are indeed Moshe’s words, how is such a turn of phrase consistent with the Tora’s own assessment of Moshe, in BaMidbar 12:3, when he is referred to as the most humble of all men? Would his belittling of the quality of the fear of Heaven due to his own natural inclination towards such a sensibility, be symptomatic of an exemplary humble personality?

And finally, why should the Tora bother to record Moshe’s feelings about this quality—how are his personal impressions  relevant to the listeners of Moshe’s generation, let alone to the contemporary Tora student, seeking to apprehend how God Desires for him/her to live his/her life?

An interpretation that suggests a means for dealing with these issues, by separating the elements in the verses under scrutiny.

Borrowing an insight into the verses in question suggested by R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin in his commentary HaEmek Davar (but not applying it in exactly the manner that he does), an intriguing answer presents itself. Noting that the Tora omits the conjunction “and” before the second and fifth elements[5] in the list of six appearing in Devarim 10, the commentator states that the verses are to be understood as delineating a list of separate qualities, each of which can stand independently of the others. In effect, even if a person cannot achieve fear of God, perhaps he is more suitable to love Him, or maybe only observe the Commandments. Consequently, Moshe never intended that the complete list of six qualities to be enacted by each member of the Jewish people, but rather that everyone, on his or her own level, should be able to focus upon some aspect of serving God, as enumerated in this list, and carry it out to the best of his/her ability, even if he excludes the others. Since everyone will be capable of some form of Divine Service in accordance with his own inclinations and interests, the individual tasks are not insurmountable or daunting, but rather eminently attainable for all, i.e., a relatively minor matter (See Devarim 30-11-14.)

An alternative approach that posits that it is Moshe’s extreme humility that causes him to underestimate how formidable the task to achieve these heights might be for others.

R. Yaakov Ibn Chaviv, author of the Aggadic compendium Iyun Yaakov, as well as the commentary on these Talmudic passages entitled HaKotev, presents a different approach that would appear far less charitable in order to resolve the issues raised above. The commentator suggests that Moshe’s thought process leading to the conclusion that anyone amongst the Jewish people can develop fear of Heaven, which includes the five specific qualities that follow reflected the following assumptions: a) Moshe, at least from his own point of view, started out like any other person, whereby due to his typical human qualities, it was difficult for him at the outset to subjugate his body to his mind and soul.[6] b) Nevertheless, due to great diligence and motivation, Moshe successfully managed to overcome obstacles posed by his physical needs and achieve the state of fear of Heaven. c) It was specifically Moshe’s humility that led him to presume that anyone could achieve what he managed to accomplish in this area of personal development. The commentator imagines Moshe to have said to his co-religionists, “And now Israel, why can’t you be like me? All of you are the descendants of Avraham and Yitzchak (Yaakov is for some reason omitted.) You have the ability to achieve my level of fear of Heaven, since I am your brother.”[7] [8]

The importance of role models if there is to be spiritual development.

Nevertheless, if, according to R. Yaakov Ibn Chaviv, Moshe saw fit to invoke the examples of Avraham and Yitzchak, it is to be concluded that to be able to achieve fear of Heaven, even in Moshe’s mind, it is necessary to have role models, if not contemporary ones, then at least historical and traditional personalities[9] from whose examples one can learn. “Ma’asei Avot Siman LaBanim” (the actions of the forefathers are precursors for their descendants) does not then merely signify that what happened to our ancestors will be reenacted by future generations, e.g., going down to Egypt, being saved by Divine Plagues, leaving Egypt with great wealth, engaging in conflicts over water and land, etc., but also the attributes that were exemplified by our ancestors, e.g., faith, persistence, courage, readiness for self-sacrifice, and fear of Heaven, are also meant to be emulated by us. Aside from the implication that Moshe did not consider achieving these spiritual goals all that difficult, was Moshe being unreasonable when he set such high expectations for his people, and, by extension, for us, or was he merely clearly stating what the moral and spiritual effects of Jewish history ought to be upon those who are the products of Jewish tradition? This is not just a theoretical question, but also one that has serious practical ramifications for each of us.

[1] It would appear that the Talmud’s concern with Moshe’s presentation turn on the two words “Ki Im” (nothing more than). The fact that HaShem Demands all of these things from His People in and of itself is not problematic. Rather the implication that the elements on the list can be easily achieved engenders concern. Had “Ki Im” been left out, there would have been no basis for this entire Talmudic discussion!

[2] R. Chanina’s initial point is that only that which is under a person’s control can be demanded of him and he in turn can be considered accountable for. Whereas one does not have a great deal of choices when it comes to (examples offered by RaShI) one’s height, complexion, intelligence potential, historical epoch, these variables are in contrast to the moral and religious dimensions of one’s personality which R. Chanina claims are very much under a person’s control, as suggested by this biblical proof text.

A modern sensibility would have to additionally consider the effects of environment, upbringing and even genetic makeup as at least playing a partial role in the eventual ethical and spiritual orientation of a given individual.

[3] With respect to the qualities that are explicitly associated with Moshe according to the bible, the most obvious is humility: (BaMidbar 12:3) “Now the man Moshe was very humble, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.” And it could be argued that humility in general, particularly with respect to someone who has an acute sense of always being in God’s Presence, will result in awe and fear of God. But it could also be claimed that Moshe in his role of prophet par excellence, must possess the qualities associated with prophets, that extend beyond humility. These are delineated in  Nedarim  38a where qualities in addition to humility are all derived from Moshe and therefore, by definition, possessed by him:

R. Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, Causes His Divine Presence to Rest only upon him

who is 1) strong, 2) wealthy, 3) wise and 4) humble;  and all these [qualifications] are deduced from Moshe.  1) Strong, for it is written, (Shemot 40:19) “And he spread abroad the tent over the tabernacle”;  and a Master said, Moses our teacher spread it (without assistance from anyone else); and it is also written, (Ibid. 26:16) “Ten cubits shall be the length of the board”.  Yet perhaps it was long and thin (and therefore is not significant in terms of indicating Moshe’s strength)? — But [it is derived] from this verse: (Devarim 9:17) “And I took the two tablets, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them.” Now, it was taught: ( The tablets were six[handbreadths] in length, six in breadth, and three in thickness.

2) Wealthy, [as it is written] (Shemot 34:1; Devarim 10:1) “Hew thee”, [interpreted] the chips be thine. (Since the tablets were made from precious stones, if Moshe not only sculpted the second tablets, but also was entitled to keep the chips that were left over after the sculpting was completed, this made him wealthy.) 3) Wise: for Rab and Samuel both said, Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world, and all but one were given to Moses, for it is said, (Tehillim 8:6) “For thou hast made him [sc. Moshe ] a little lower than God.” 4) Humble, for it is written, “Now the man Moshe was very humble”

Most of these additional qualities are codified by RaMBaM: Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Yesodei HaTora 7:1–

It is [one] of the foundations of [our] faith that God conveys prophecy to man.

Prophecy is bestowed only upon 3) a very wise sage of 4) a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess 5) a very broad and accurate mental capacity.

A person who is full of all these qualities and is 1) physically sound [is fit for prophecy]. When he enters the Pardes and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses an accurate mental capacity to comprehend and grasp [them], he will become holy. He will advance and separate himself from the masses who proceed in the darkness of the time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatsoever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times.

Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath [God's] throne [of Glory, striving] to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in its entirety, [in its manifold manifestations] from the most elevated [spiritual] form until the navel of the earth, appreciating His greatness from them. [After these preparations,] the divine spirit will immediately rest upon him.

When the spirit rests upon him, his soul becomes intermingled with the angels called ishim, and he will be transformed into a different person and will understand with a knowledge different from what it was previously. He will rise above the level of other wise men, as [the prophet, Samuel] told Saul [I Samuel 10:6]: “[The spirit of God will descend upon you] and you shall prophesy with them. And you will be transformed into a different person.”

It would seem according to RaMBaM’s gloss of the quality of “wisdom” that properly applied and directed, such wisdom will bring an individual to contemplate God and thereby reach the state of fear of God.

But one could argue that even when endowed with prodigious wisdom, whether the individual directs it properly or not is a matter of free choice. One could possess this quality and yet dedicate it to frivolous pursuits. Perhaps only a combination of humility and wisdom, with the former focusing the latter upon the appropriate objective in light of how small the individual feels vis-à-vis the Divine Presence, can the prophetic state be achieved relatively straightforwardly in the spirit of Moshe’s comment.

It is notable that RaMBaM omits the issue of wealth from his list. (I have interpreted humility as part of strong character, although it could be justifiably argued exceptional character includes more than humility.) Some commentators suggest that RaMBaM approached the issue of wealth figuratively rather than literally, in the spirit of (Avot 4:1) “Who is truly wealthy? He who is happy with his lot,” in effect another aspect of strong character. However, the Gemora, by basing its contention for wealth as a prophetic prerequisite, appears to take wealth quite literally. Could the RaMBaM have been concerned that whereas for Moshe, who was so extremely humble, wealth would not “go to his head”, this is usually not the case regarding someone who is not exceptionally humble?

[4] See Abrabanel’s introduction to Sefer Devarim where he presents such the view that HaShem Authorized the usage of Moshe’s own words to comprise much of this biblical book.

[5] The “and” before the 6th element is not worthy of notice since it would be mandated by common usage in the sense of preceding the last element in a list, as opposed to the use of the conjunction vis-à-vis earlier elements in the list.

[6] See the pseudo-Midrash discussed by Shneur Leiman “R. Israel Lipshutz: The Portrait of Moses” in Tradition 24:4 Summer 1989. While the author debunks the veracity of this Chassidic text and demonstrates that it originates from ancient Greek traditions, the assumption that Moshe’s fundamental  nature was not only not profoundly exceptional, but rather crude and vicious, and it was only by means of his great efforts at self-control and spiritual growth that he managed to achieve the heights that he reached, constitutes an extreme manifestation of R. Yaakov Ibn Chaviv’s approach.

[7] This approach is in stark contrast to Klee Yakar who posits that since Moshe is addressing at least some of the generation that saw the awesome miracles of Sinai and the desert wanderings, it should be easy for them to engender a fear of Heaven, in contrast to their descendants for whom it will be much more difficult due to their lack of first-hand experience. Therefore Moshe would never have implied that this is easy were he addressing the later generations, and only did so vis-à-vis those standing before him. But then one would have to deal with the question of why, if what the Tora records is meant to be for all generations, do we have to be told that for the generation of the desert, fear of Heaven should be an easy commodity to come by?

[8] Such an approach would appear to be directly opposite the classic Chassidic story told about Reb Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (1718-1800):

Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”


[9] I discuss using the example of Avraham Avinu as a Jewish educator to inspire contemporary teachers of Jewish ideas in “Abraham: Pioneer Religious Educator, Paradigm for Contemporary Teachers of Judaism”, Rav Chesed: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Doctor Haskel Lookstein, Vol. 1, ed. Rafael Medoff, (Ktav, Hoboken, 2009).

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