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Parashat Eikev: The Interplay between Singularity and Plurality in the Term “HaMitzva” (The Commandment) by Yaakov Bieler

August 6, 2012 by  
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Why is the corpus of Commandments referred to in the Tora as a single Commandment?

Based upon Makkot 23b, it is commonly assumed that the Tora contains 613 Commandments. But, as RaMBaM points out in the introduction to his Sefer HaMitzvot, there are in fact thousands of Commandments when one includes Rabbinic legislation, customs, the details of various rituals, etc. It is therefore surprising that we encounter on a number of occasions in the book of Devarim, including Parashat Eikev, the word “HaMitzva” (the Commandment—sing.)[1] that suggests that rather than there being a multiplicity of Commandments, there is only a single overarching one.

The most pronounced discussion among the Biblical commentators of the implications of the somewhat oxymoronic[2] phrase “Kol HaMitzva” (all of the commandment)[3] is centered on Devarim 8:1 in Parashat Eikev.

Ibid. 8:1

“Kol HaMitzva” that I am commanding you today, observe to do in order that you will live and multiply and come to inherit the land that HaShem Swore to your fathers.

Two approaches for understanding to what “Kol HaMitzva” might be referring.

Most commentators can be divided into two essential schools of thought: those that insist that a single Commandment is being referred to by the Tora in this verse, and others who perceive that the reader is being called upon to identify some sort of theme that informs and integrates all Tora Commandments into some type of “meta-Commandment”.

a) A single, specific Mitzva is intended.

Among the examples of those contending that “Kol HaMitzva” is referring to a particular Mitzva that symbolically represents all other Commandments by virtue of its importance and centrality, are the following:

Rabbeinu Bachaya

The term “Kol HaMitzva” is juxtaposed[4] next to the matter of idolatry, when the Tora states, (Devarim 7:26) “…because it (an object associated with idolatry) is ‘Cheirem’ (set apart, unavailable for usage)”,[5],[6] in order to teach you that whomever despises idolatry, it is as if he has fulfilled the entire Tora.[7] The Rabbis have interpreted (an extension of Megilla 13a) that whomever denies idolatry is considered as ratifying the entire Tora, and whomever agrees with idolatry, it is as if he has denied the validity of the entire Tora.

Chizkuni

It (“Kol HaMitzva” of 8:1) is referring to (Devarim 7:25) “The idols of their gods you shall burn in fire; ‘Lo Tachmod’ (do not lust after) the silver and gold that is upon them (the decorations of the idols, causing you to preserve them) lest you take them for your own, and you will be tripped up on their account, because it is an abomination to the Lord your God.”

It could be maintained that both Rabbeinu Bachaya and Chizkuni are indicating the same central Commandment rising above all others, i.e., idolatry, as the antecedent of 8:1’s “Kol HaMitzva”. Such a contention would be understandable not only because of the juxtaposition of 7:25-6 and 8:1, but also because idolatry is the converse of the belief in the one God, HaShem, and the prohibition against such beliefs is stated immediately after the first of the Ten Commandments calling upon Jews to believe in God.

Shemot 20:2-3; Devarim 5:6-7

I am the Lord your God Who Took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of enslavement.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

Yet Chizkuni’s emphasis upon the second verb in 7:25, “Lo Tachmod”, in place of  calling attention to 7:26 in the manner of Rabbeinu Bachaya, can lead one to conclude that at least as, if not even more, fundamental to Judaism than avoiding all aspects of idolatry is suppressing the desire to make your own what others possess. It is no coincidence that “Lo Tachmod” is the final Commandment in the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:14; Devarim 5:18),[8] a prohibition about which RaMBaN on Shemot 21:1 writes, in order to explain the connection between the end of the Aseret HaDibrot and the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim:

…And “These are the laws” (Shemot 21:1) corresponds to /is an explanation of “Lo Tachmod” (Shemot 20:14), because if a person does not know the laws concerning a house, a field and other monetary matters, he might come to think that they really belong to him, and he will lust after the belongings of his fellow, and he will take them for himself. It is for this reason that the Tora states, (Shemot 21:1) “…and you (Moshe) will place them (the laws) before them…”, i.e., fair laws should serve as the basis for their interactions with one another, and they should not lust after that which legally does not belong to them…

While it would seem that the general directive of “Lo Tachmod”, as opposed to its specific application to the decorations of idols which is its immediate context in Devarim 7:25, is more societal and ethical in nature than theological, and therefore should not be compared to matters of monotheism and belief as represented by “Anochi” (Shemot 20:2; Devarim 5:6) and “Lo Yihyeh Lecha” (Shemot 20:3; Devarim 5:7), it could be argued that a belief in a Creator and a Deity that Involved Himself in the personal affairs of human beings, in fact should have a direct impact upon an individual’s attitude towards his/her own possessions and any desire to acquire things presently belonging to others. Certainly all possessions belonging to others that are legally and Halachically “off-limits”, such as someone else’s spouse or property that the individual refuses to sell, even for a fair price, should not appear to a religious, believing individual as something that God Allows to him/her as a realistic object of desire that should be seriously considered.[9]

b) A single Commandment is being referenced, but no specific one in particular.

Another point of view that takes the singular form of “Kol HaMitzva” quite literally, but does not focus upon any particular Mitzva as being emphasized above all others, is expressed in the following commentary:

Klee Yakar

The verse begins in the singular (“Kol HaMitzva Asher Anochi Metzavcha” [all of the Mitzva that I am commanding you {sing.}]) and ends in the plural (“Tishmerun La’asot” [you will observe {pl.} to do] in order that “Tichyun” [you will live {pl.}] and “U’Revitem” [you will multiply {pl.}]).

This is because according to Mishlei 10:25, “Tzaddik Yesod Olam” (the righteous individual is the foundation of the world” (i.e., by performing Mitzvot, an individual qualifies as a Tzaddik and contributes to the ongoing existence of the world.) Consequently, even a single individual (“Metzavcha”, [sing.]) who fulfills a single Mitzva (hence “HaMitzva”, [sing.]), has achieved something that is fortuitous for him because he has “tilted the scales” in his favor as well as in the favor of the entire world (see Kiddushin 40b).[10]

And so too when an individual repents, he is forgiven as is the entire world (a paraphrase of Yoma 86b).[11]

…The observance on the part of the individual is considered as if everyone has performed the Commandments and a benefit therefore accrues to everyone.

And the word “Mitzva” also appears in the singular to indicate that even a single Mitzva performed correctly causes “LeMa’an Tichyun” (in order that you will live [pl.]). This is in accordance with R. Yochanan’s comment in Sanhedrin 111a:

(Yeshayahu 5:14) “Therefore the grave/Geihinnom will widen itself, opening its mouth ‘Livli Chok’ (lit. without limit; but the word “Chok” is also a technical term for Commandments whose rationales’ are difficult to ascertain).”

Said R. Yochanan:…This (being consigned to “Geihinnom”) applies to someone who has not fulfilled even a single “Chok”.

However, if he has fulfilled even a single “Chok” he will be saved from Geihinnom, since one Mitzva precipitates another…

At least two aspects of Klee Yakar’s commentary on 8:1 are intriguing. Firstly, the commentator includes repentance among the single Mitzvot that an individual can perform which will benefit everyone. One might have thought that a distinction should be drawn between fully fulfilling one of the positive Mitzvot that hitherto had been completely ignored, as opposed to an individual resuming observance of something that he has   observed in the past, but whose compliance had lapsed at some point.[12] Apparently, according to Klee Yakar, it is more important that individuals be engaged in serious Mitzva observance, even if it means no more than to return to a level previously achieved, rather than searching out areas for innovation and expansion of religious performance previously unexperienced.

But significantly more intriguing is Klee Yakar’s view that one Jew’s fulfillment of any Commandment somehow benefits the entire community. Usually when the rule (Shavuot 39a) Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh (all of Israel are guarantors/responsible for one another) is invoked, it is to assert collective responsibility in general, and guilt in particular, for a group member’s transgressions, as in the case of Achan and the Cheirem[13] of Yericho (Yehoshua 7:1 ff.) When Achan steals for his own use some of the spoils of Yericho, the Jews proceed to lose the next battle in which they engage, the battle of Ay (Ibid. 7:4-5), indicating God’s Intent to punish the entire nation for Achan’s iniquity.[14] Klee Yakar places a welcome positive spin on tractate Shavuot’s principle, and brings it into line with ChaZaL’s general observation that HaShem’s Attribute of Mercy far outstrips His Attribute of Justice.[15] While it may be argued that Klee Yakar’s hypothesis is entirely metaphysical in nature whereby all of Israel is compared spiritually to a single organic whole, the premise that one person’s Mitzva “counts” for all of us can also be understood psychologically and socially. Particularly when the performance of the Commandment takes place publicly, the example of a single individual fully and passionately carrying out God’s Will even in one way could generate extensive personal soul-searching and eventual emulation on the part of the onlookers, a case of true Kiddush HaShem B’Farhesya (Sanctifying God’s Name in public).

c) The singular “Mitzva” references all Commandments.

Ohr HaChayim represents the view that “Kol HaMitzva” is indicative of the entire corpus of Mitzvot in the Tora, as opposed to any particular one. This commentator proceeds to take the exact opposite view espoused by Klee Yakar.

Ohr HaChayim

…Moshe understood the hearts of men and the common spirit that informs them from the greatest to the least, and that is the tendency to do as little as possible in terms of serving HaShem, and in that way leaving the path of Life. This tendency manifests itself in the following manner: When a person fulfills two or three Commandments that have presented themselves to him, and even if he commits himself to a single Mitzva of the Commandments and carries it out regularly and with diligence, there is generated within him a sense of laziness towards other Commandments which come his way. The same is true when they are engaged in fulfilling numerous Mitzvot which supply them with a sense of spiritual well-being. This negative trend particularly results in disparaging those Mitzvot that are perceived as “less important” on the part of those who view themselves as students of the Tora and complying with most of the Tora’s Commandments…

With respect to such an attitude comes God’s Prophet (Moshe) and employs the terminology “Kol HaMitzva”, representing the entire Tora as a single Mitzva, and therefore instructing that it must be observed in its entirety, rather than falling prey to the aforementioned destructive spiritual attitude…

Whereas Klee Yakar sees an individual performing a single Mitzva as a scenario that offers hope and optimism for the future of the Jewish people, Ohr HaChayim suggests just the opposite. For the latter, the whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts, and the fewer Mitzvot performed, the less effective will such performance be with respect to perfecting the individual as well as those around him. An apparent case of deciding whether the glass is half-full or half-empty!

Interpreting the phrase in terms of the quality rather than the quantity of Mitzva performance.

A perspective accounting for the phrase “Kol HaMitzva” that focuses upon how one fulfills a particular Mitzva, unrelated to whether or not s/he is also performing other Mitzvot, is cited by several commentators, basing themselves upon a Midrashic interpretation:

Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Eikev, Chapt. 6

Another interpretation: “Kol HaMitzva”—If you begin to perform a Commandment, make sure to complete it in its entirety. Why?

Said R. Yochanan: Anyone who begins to fulfill a Mitzva, and afterwards another comes along and completes it, the Mitzva is associated with the one who finished it. From whom can you learn this concept? From Moshe. When the Jews left Egypt, what is written? (Shemot 13:19) “And Moshe took the remains of Yosef…” All of the people were engaged in gathering spoils and Moshe was involved in collecting Yosef’s remains. He came and stood amidst all of the graves. He cried out, “Yosef! Yosef! The time has arrived when HaShem is Redeeming His Children. The Divine Presence is Awaiting Israel, and the Clouds of Glory are Awaiting you. If you reveal your location at this point, very well; if not, we are exempt from the oath that you imposed upon us” (see Beraishit 50:25).[16] Immediately, Yosef’s coffin shook/showed itself. He took it and went on his way. Moshe died in the desert and did not enter the Land. The Jews brought the remains of Yosef into the Land and buried it. The text attributes the Mitzva to them, as it is said, (Yehoshua 24:32) “And the remains of Yosef that the Children of Israel took out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem.” That is why he (Moshe) said to them, “Kol HaMitzva” (the Mitzva in its entirety).[17]

Although a well-known counter source could be pitted against the Tanchuma’s argument for completing what one starts when it comes to Mitzvot—

Avot 2:20

It is not your responsibility to finish the work, nor are you free to exempt yourself from it…

Meiri

You should not say, “How can I begin something that I won’t be able to finish?”, because you are not obligated to finish it if that would require of you strength/energy/ability of which you are incapable. On the other hand, if you say, “I am not ready to do this at all!” you must nevertheless strive to do as much as you can, since you are not free to be exempt from doing something that you were created to do.

—it appears relatively easy to reconcile these two positions. There will be things that one has the wherewithal to complete, and others that one cannot. When the opportunity to do a complete job presents itself, then this is to be diligently pursued; that being said, there are many projects that should be started, even if they will culminate with the actions of others. Less should be thought about the credit that will or will not be received, as opposed to the importance of contributing towards the ultimate perfection of the world in accordance with God’s Law.

Conclusion.

In the final analysis, there is no absolutely “right” interpretation for “Kol HaMitzva” but rather a number of important ideas that the phrase generates, among them the realization of the implications of certain Commandments such as the prohibitions against idolatry and lusting after another’s possessions, the recognition that every time one person does one more Mitzva we are all so much better off, the danger of picking and choosing Mitzvot and thereby possibly voiding the desired cumulative effect of them all, and the value of doing as much as each of us possibly can, if not a Mitzva in its entirety, than at least a healthy portion of it.


[1] In some cases, “HaMitzva” appears alongside other terminologies for Commandments; however “HaMitzva” is in the singular while the others terms appear in plural form.

Devarim 6:1

And this is “HaMitzva HaChukim VeHaMishpatim” (the Commandment, the Statutes and the Laws) that the Lord your God Commanded to teach you to do in the land that you are crossing over to inherit.

Ibid. 7:11

And you will observe to do “HaMitzva VeEt HaChukim VeEt HaMishpatim” (the Commandment and the Statutes and the Laws) that I am commanding you today to do them.

In another instance, a number of preceding Divine Demands are combined and summarized by the singular term “HaMitzva”.

Ibid. 6:24-25

And HaShem Commanded us to do “Et Kol HaChukim HaEileh” (all of these Statutes) to fear the Lord our God (since there is no specific manner by which one demonstrates his/her “God-fearingness”, multiple actions are implied) in order that it will be good for us all of the days so that it will keep us alive like on this day.

And it will be considered righteousness on our parts when we observe and do “Kol HaMitzva HaZot” (all of this Commandment) before the Lord our God as He Commanded us. (For a more extensive discussion of the effect of the implication of the combination “Kol” and “HaMitzva”, see the continuation of this footnote as well as the essay below.)

And then there are cases when the term “HaMitzva” is followed by multiple specific examples.

Ibid. 11:22

If you certainly observe “Et Kol HaMitzva HaZot” (all of this Commandment) that I am commanding you to do it, 1) to love the Lord your God, 2) to go in all of His Ways and 3) to cling to Him.

Ibid. 19:9

When you will observe “Kol HaMitzva HaZot” (all of this Commandment) to do it that I am commanding you today, 1) to love the Lord your God, 2) to go in His Ways all of the days, and there will be added to you an additional three cities (of refuge) above and beyond these three (that already have been established).

But the most curious occurrences of the term “HaMitzva” in Sefer Devarim are those where the word goes unaccompanied by any clarifying language, at least in its own immediate verse.

Ibid. 17:20

Without his heart becoming exalted above his brothers (he, the king, should not become arrogant), and without his digressing from “HaMitzva” neither to the right nor to the left, in order for him to enjoy a length of days in his monarchy, he and his descendants, in the midst of Israel.

Ibid. 30:11

Because “HaMitzva HaZot” that I am commanding you today is neither too incomprehensible to you nor distant from you.

The ambiguity of an unaccompanied “HaMitzva” is further increased when the word “Kol” (all, in its entirety) appears alongside, and we have no series of preceding or following terminologies by which to clarify what is being referenced by the addition of the inclusive word “Kol”.

Ibid. 8:1

“Kol HaMitzva” that I am commanding you today, observe to do in order that you will live and multiply and come to inherit the land that HaShem Swore to your fathers.

Ibid. 11:8

And you will observe “Et Kol HaMitzva” that I am commanding you today in order that you will be strengthened and you will come and inherit the land that you are crossing there to inherit.

Ibid. 15:8

Only if you surely listen to the Voice of the Lord your God to observe and do “Kol HaMitzva HaZot” that I am commanding you today.

Ibid. 27:1

And Moshe commanded the elders of Israel saying, “Observe ‘Et Kol HaMitza’ that I am commanding you today.”

Ibid. 31:8

And HaShem will Place them before you and you will do to them “KeChol HaMitzva” that I commanded you.

[2] “Kol” usually is associated with a great number of elements, while “HaMitzva” implies that we are dealing with a single Commandment.

[3] Although Devarim 6:24-5 in an earlier instance than 8:1 that also features the structure “Kol HaMitzva”, I assume that because the phrase in 6:25 is preceded by what might be clarifying terms in 6:24 (“HaChukim [the Statutes]; “LeYira Et HaShem Elokeinu” [to fear the Lord our God], the commentators do not feel the need to further clarify “HaMitzva”. Devarim 8:1, in contrast, is not accompanied by comparable textual clarifications, and therefore attracts the attention of those intent on interpreting the phrase in question.

[4] The two verses being referenced, in accordance with the hermeneutic principle Semichut HaParshiot, Devarim 7:26 and 8:1, appear next to one another in the Tora text. However the force of this Derasha (homiletic interpretation) is somewhat mitigated by a “space” in the traditional Written Tora text, in this case a “Petucha” (the line on which this verse concludes is left empty until the end of the column of words, and the next verse begins on the succeeding line), thereby separating the two verses from each other. While the verses follow one another sequentially, the space between them visually suggests that they should not be particularly associated with one another.

[5] An artifact that has been worshiped as an idol, employed in worshipping an idol or the result of the act of idol worship, is prohibited for Jews to derive any benefit whatsoever from such an object.

[6] The full text of the verse is: “And you shall not bring an abomination into your house, lest you become ‘Cheirem’ like it, you shall view it as a disgusting crawling thing, and approach it as surely abominable, because it is ‘Cheirem’”.

[7] Rejecting idolatry (7:26) is tantamount to observing the entire Tora (8:1).

[8] Two conflicting principles which lead to opposite conclusions with regard to the significance of these respective Commandments of the Aseret HaDibrot are: 1) Rishon Kodmin (the “first” are given precedence, i.e., are considered more important) à the first Commandments with regard to believing in God and avoiding idolatry are key; and 2) Acharon Acharon Chaviv (the very last is the most beloved, important) à the last Commandment is central and is the culmination of the others.

[9] There is a difference between an individual’s unpremeditated fantasies, over which one does not have control—the Shabbat hymn’s Hirhurim Mutarim (unexpected thoughts are Halachically permitted, as a function of the principle Ones Rachmana Patrei [what one does against one’s will is exempted by the Tora) and contemplation that is disciplined, focused, intended and invited.

[10] Kiddushin 40b

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always consider himself as if he were half guilty and half meritorious. If he performs one Commandment, happy is he for weighing himself down in the scale of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for weighing himself down in the scale of guilt…

R. Elazar ben Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual too is judged by the majority of his deeds, if he performs one good deed, happy is he for turning the scale both for himself and for the entire world on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for weighting himself and the whole world in the scale of guilt…

[11] Yoma 86b

It was taught: R. Meir used to say, Great is repentance for on account of an individual who repents, the sins of all the world are forgiven, as it is said, (Hoshea 14:5) “I will Heal their backsliding, I will Love them freely, for My Anger is Turned away from him.” From “them” is not said, but rather “from him”, (i.e., when HaShem is no longer Angry at the individual once he repents, He Proceeds to love not only the penitent, but everyone freely).

[12] See the discussion on forms and contexts of repentance in the essay on Parashat VaEtchanan, 5765 http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-vaetchanan-the-roots-of-repentance-by-yaakov-bieler/

[13] See the discussion of Devarim 7:25 above.

[14] For a more extensive discussion of “Areivut” see http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashiot-netzavim-vayelech-justifying-transgressions-past-and-present-by-yaakov-bieler/

[15] A manifestation of this principle appears in RaShI’s comment on Shemot 20:4-5 “…Because I am the Lord your God, a jealous God, Who Visits the iniquities of the fathers on their sons, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me. And Who Acts Mercifully to the thousands (plural indicates at least two)  of those who love Me and observe My Commandments.”

RaShI: …It is the case that God’s Goodness Attribute is five hundred times greater than His Punishing Attribute, for the latter applies to four generations, while the former to two thousand.

[16] And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: “God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.”

[17] See Klee Yakar on Devarim 4:41  , cited in the Nechama Leibowitz’ Gilayon for Parashat VeEtchanan 5721 http://www.nechama.org.il/pages/438.html

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