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Introduction/About this commentary:

This post is part of a series of weekly blog posts in which I share a bit of commentary/interpretation on some part of the week’s Torah Portion, partly for my learning but also because I want to contribute a little bit of my own perspective to the ongoing Jewish and Interfaith conversations about the week’s Torah portion.

My own bias/perspective is that I try to interpret the text from a socialist perspective, (in that I see Torah as being largely a critique of the values of Empire, put into its current form by displaced people living in exile) but also from a humanist perspective (in that I think I think we need to read and interpret these texts with critical minds, focused on human needs). And finally, I try to work through the text in a liberal Jewish way, seeking to engage in the dialogue over the millennia, seeking to hear and respond to the voices of our tradition, but also not being afraid to critique or argue against elements of that tradition.

The Text

My Commentary

For this post, I want to focus my attention on one verse in this parasha, Deuteronomy 8:1.

I think that in reading this text, the context of the composition is critical. According to most scholars, the book of Deuteronomy (Devarim in Hebrew) likely has its origins in the reforms of King Josiah (who reigned over the Southern Kingdom of Judah from around 641–609 BCE). Later the text was fleshed out into its current form during and after the days of the Babylonian exile.

This means that this book was written and edited during times of great turmoil for the people of Judah and at a time when the survival of Jewish peoplehood was by no means certain. It was a time when many people were looking to their past to make sense of their present and possible future.

Much of Deuteronomy focuses on long speeches said to be given by Moses, in which he reminds the people of their covenant obligations and the ways that God will either bless them due to their obedience or curse them for their disobedience; which is interesting since the text was written at a time after circumstances got bad, implying that disobedience by the people was responsible for their current woes.

Deuteronomy 8 picks up in the middle of one of these speeches, with the first verse being a bit of a thesis statement for the chapter:

כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֨עַן תִּֽחְי֜וּן וּרְבִיתֶ֗ם וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע יְהוָ֖ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall faithfully observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your fathers.

Hebrew text and English translation (JPS 1985) From Sefaria.org

There are three Hebrew words in this verse that I want to unpack:

  1. The “Instruction” mentioned here is in Hebrew the word מְצַוְּךָ֛ (mitzvot, the plural form of mitzvah), which refers to performing actions to fulfill a divine commandment, rather than just performing good deeds (today’s popular definition).
  2. The word תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן (the root being שָׁמַר, shamar) means to keep, guard or observe.
  3. The word לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת (the root being עָשָׂה, asah means to make or do, but also interestingly in modern Hebrew it can also mean “to have sex with” (much as the word “do” is used in English colloquially. We will come back to this concept in a bit.)

The traditional understanding of this text focuses on the idea that good things come to those who are faithful and bad things come to those who are not, however, the traditional understanding has become untenable for many, not just today but in ancient times (as seen from the book of Job, which would seem to contradict this entire passage). But certainly in modern days, it is even more difficult to reconcile this text with the idea that the Jewish victims of genocide were fundamentally at fault for their own deaths, because of the collective sins of the people.

I think that the compositional context helps to make sense of this text, since it was written by people who had seen the world fall down around them and who were yearning for answers and hope. Hence I can understand the attraction of the idea that faithful observance of mitzvot would lead to good things for the people, since it is fundamentally empowering. Because if true, this line of thinking puts oppressed people back in the driver’s seat of their own destiny, since obedience to mitzvot could then prompt God to honor the blessings of the covenant and remove their oppressors.

Of course, we have to say it didn’t work, at least in a literal sense.

Oppression and occupation continued, with only occasional times of Jewish autonomy (such as in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt) but always followed by eventual subjugation of the land and the people by the global powers of their time, with the final destruction of the second temple and the city of Jerusalem soon to follow. Traditionalists will of course argue that this all happened because the people weren’t faithful enough in observing mitzvot (much like Chabad teaches that the return of the Meshiach can be hastened by proper Shabbat observance by all Jewish people), but I would argue instead that faithfully observing mitzvot (even when it requires rethinking and reinvention) can lead to good things.

My favorite example of reinvention in faithful observance is from the time of the Babylonian captivity. The Temple had been destroyed and many of the people were no longer in Eretz Israel (the land of Israel), which meant that many of the mitzvot could no longer be performed. Yet, Jews in captivity found ways to live their faith, partly through writing (which is where we get much of Jewish scriptures) but also in the development of synagogues (lay-led democratic communities for prayer, ritual and connection), which in time led to the development of rabbinic Judaism. And of course this time also led to new ways of understanding of place, with many Jews in time choosing to live in diaspora. And while Eretz Israel remains important (with about half of all Jews in the world living there), Judaism does not depend on the land for its survival, which I think that is a good thing.

So what does “faithful observance” of mitzvah meant to us today?

One key is the idea of action.

The JPS Torah commentary says that (emphasis added is my own):

Since his message is that Israel should always remember its dependence on God, it is noteworthy that Moses begins with an appeal to observe the commandments. This reflects the biblical view that awareness of God and obedience are not separate phenomena: the commandments are the practical expression of awareness of God and serve to foster it.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (1996 Jewish Publications Society)

This idea of faithful action as being key is amplified by the Hebrew text, most notably the verbs of shamar (to guard) and asah (to make/do). Mitzvot are meant to be acted upon, and one can even argue that many of the mitzvot require us to make them happen.

One great example of a mitzvot that requires making is Shabbat. For traditional Jews, observing shabbat in our modern world requires a great deal of preparation, but even for non-traditional Jews, observing Shabbat requires effort and attention, since we not only ask what our tradition tells us we should do, but we also have to ask whether these are practices that are life-affirming and helpful to ourselves and others.

These days (during the COVID-19 pandemic), I’m something of a stay-at-home dad (my wife is family practice physician, seeing patients for 50 hours per week right now), which means that preparing for Shabbat mostly falls on my son and myself. Every Thursday, we start our preparations by vacuuming the house, putting flowers on the table, picking up clutter, planing a meal, getting out the candles, set up the computer so we watch our zoom Shabbat service, planning relaxing Saturday activities for our family to do, etc. These practices are mundane and trivial (and we still don’t always manage to execute them well), but I am learning over time that these practices are necessary to make shabbat happen.

And in the same way, I think about the phrase in our popular culture of “making love” (as a euphemism for having sex) in this same context. Like many, I too can get tunnel vision and not think of sexuality in as holistic of a way as I ought to, but I have learned that the more time and effort I put into cultivating connection with my spouse, the more that the term “making love” becomes something bigger than just about sex.

But action alone isn’t enough. Many people act with zealous energy to do evil, and many good people find themselves doing bad things with good intentions. This is why the idea of shamar (to keep, guard or observe) is important. Traditionally this idea has normally been used to enforce the boundaries of Torah observance (even to build a wall around a mitzvot with higher levels of diligence to avoid violations), but another approach might be to say that we have to observe closely and then to make good judgments — sometimes that will be in judging the mitzvot itself, but also often observing and judging our selves.

So the challenge I will pose you all with is this: What can we do for the sake of love and faith this week? Obviously, doing mitzvot will not lead to the vanquishment of the oppressive forces in our world or give us boundless wealth and fertility (we know this from history), but doing mitzvot with thoughtful attention can lead to good things, even Tikkun Olam (reparing the world).

More Resources

I have compiled a list of other resources at my website: Tango with Torah (coming soon).