Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
A Strange Segue
A puzzling textual connection is apparently drawn between two separate themes in the second paragraph of the Shma.
Beware for yourselves, lest your hearts be seduced and you will stray and serve other gods and bow down to them. And the anger of the Lord shall be kindled against you, and He will hold back the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will be swiftly banished from the goodly land that the Lord gives you.
And you shall place these words of Mine upon your hearts and upon your souls, and you shall bind them for a sign upon your hands and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children that they shall speak of them, when you sit in your house and as you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. In order that your days and the days of your children shall be long upon the land that the Lord has promised to your forefathers to give to them, like the days of the heaven over the earth.
What connection is there between the threat “you will be swiftly banished” from the land and the instructions that immediately follow: “You shall place these words of Mine upon your hearts and upon your souls, and you shall bind them for a sign upon your hands and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes…”?
Why does the text apparently link Torah study and the performance of mitzvot to the eventuality of exile? Aren’t the commandments eternally incumbent upon the Jewish people, whether they find themselves in the Land of Israel or in the diaspora?
So troubling is this textual flow that a number of commentaries, including the Malbim and the Netziv, refuse to accept it at face value. The directives concerning mitzva observance contained in this passage, these scholars claim, reflect “backward,” textually, rather than “forward.” The obligation to mitzvot is not to be seen as a product of exile but as a preventative to exile.
How can you avoid seduction, sin, punishment and exile? God rhetorically asks the nation. “And you shall place these words…” By observing My commandments, you will lengthen your days upon the land.
As proof of his position, the Malbim notes the final, seemingly disconnected sentence of the passage: “In order that your days and the days of your children shall be long upon the land that the Lord has promised to your forefathers to give to them, like the days of the heaven over the earth.” This sentence, the Malbim maintains, reflects “backwards,” as well, and is actually the culmination of all that comes before. Through the observance of mitzvot, God promises, you will avoid the tragedy of exile; and together with your children you will enjoy length of days on the land.
In stark contrast to the above scholars, the Midrash embraces the straightforward textual connection between exile and the mitzvot by interpreting God’s message as follows: “Even though I exile you from the Land, continue to distinguish yourself in the performance of mitzvot so that when you return they will not seem new to you.… As [the prophet] Yirmiyahu instructs: Set for yourselves signposts…”
This Midrashic interpretation, however, raises more problems than it solves.
Are the rabbis really suggesting that the performance of mitzvot in exile is simply “a practice run” for when the nation returns to the land? This contention flies in the face of our fundamental understanding of Jewish law.
There are, after all, two categories of halachic obligations:
1. Mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz (mitzvot that are connected to the land): commandments, such as the agricultural laws of Shmita (the seventh sabbatical year) and Yovel (the Jubilee year), that can only be properly fulfilled within the Land of Israel.
2. Mitzvot she’einam teluyot ba’aretz (mitzvot that are not connected to the land): commandments, such as mezuza, tefillin, kashrut and Shabbat observance, that are incumbent upon the Jewish people, wherever they may be.
How can the Midrash suggest that this second group of mitzvot (including tefillin and mezuza, which are clearly mentioned in the text of the Shma) are only observed by Jews in exile so that these commandments “will not seem new” to the nation upon their return to the land?
This contention seems to openly contradict the halachic reality that these mitzvot are binding upon all Jews, wherever they may be.
Rashi compounds the mystery by accepting this Midrashic thesis without question. Commenting on the Torah passage before us, this great sage simply declares: “[God commands:] ‘Even after you are exiled continue to distinguish yourself through the performance of mitzvot. Put on tefillin, affix mezuzot in order that they should not be new to you when you return.’ As [the prophet Yirmiyahu] states: ‘Set for yourself signposts…’ ”
Is it possible that Rashi, a citizen of France, considered his own observance of mitzvot such as tefillin and mezuza to be only a “practice run,” preparatory to his people’s eventual return to the Land of Israel?
The towering sixteenth-century scholar Rabbi Yehuda Loew (the Maharal of Prague) quotes an opinion in his supercommentary on Rashi that addresses the questions concerning this Midrash directly. The Midrash can be understood, according to this view, by narrowing the focus of our discussion to the two physical mitzvot mentioned in the second paragraph of the Shma, the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuza.
The Torah specifically connects tefillin and mezuza to the threat of exile because these commandments possess characteristics that might have logically exempted the diaspora Jewish community from their observance. Although tefillin and mezuza are independent of the land of Israel and are thus certainly incumbent upon Jews everywhere; the realities of exile could easily prevent their proper observance. The mitzva of mezuza entails the rights of homeownership, often denied to diaspora Jews. Tefillin, for their part, must be worn without mental distraction. “And how,” asks the Maharal, “is it possible [when living in exile among foreign nations] not to be distracted when wearing tefillin?”
Had the critical mitzvot of tefillin and mezuza fallen into disuse because of these diaspora realities, however, the people would have lost their ability to properly perform these commandments even upon their return to the land. The Torah therefore urges the nation to exert all efforts to overcome the obstacles and perform these commandments even in the diaspora: to purchase and settle in homes that will require mezuzot, to rise above the daily travail of diaspora existence and focus without distraction on the messages inherent in the tefillin. Even though you might rightfully have been exempt from these mitzvot due to the exigencies of exile, God commands, find your way to their observance. If you do so, upon your return to the land these commandments will not seem new and strange.
A much more direct approach to the Midrash, however, is offered by the Ramban, who sees this rabbinic teaching as an earlier iteration of his own revolutionary position connecting Jewish observance to the Land of Israel. As we have previously noted (see Bereishit: Vayeitzei 2, Approaches C), the Ramban maintains that all mitzvot fulfilled outside the Land of Israel are fundamentally incomplete. While commandments such as mezuza and tefillin are certainly obligatory upon the Jewish people wherever they may be, this scholar argues, even these mitzvot can only be observed in their fullness in the land.
This singular connection between Jewish observance and the Land of Israel, the Ramban maintains, is acknowledged at the dawn of Jewish history by the patriarch Yaakov. On the morning following his dramatic dream of a ladder stretching from the earth heavenward, as he prepares to leave the land of Canaan for the first time, Yaakov enacts a vow: “If God will be with me and will guard me on this path upon which I go, and [if He] will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and [if] I will return in peace to the home of my father and the Lord will be my God, then this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be as a house of God; and all that You give to me I will repeatedly tithe to You.”
A multitude of scholars struggle with this vow, asking how the patriarch could possibly make his worship of God conditional upon material gain (see Bereishit: Vayeitzei 2). The Ramban, however, solves the problem in a manner consistent with his overall position on the singularity of the Land of Israel. The phrase “and the Lord will be my God,” this scholar argues, is not a condition that Yaakov places upon his own volitional behavior. This phrase, instead, reflects a newfound awareness on the part of the patriarch as a result of God’s promise to bring him back to the land. Now, I recognize, Yaakov declares, that the Lord will fully be my God only upon my return to the Land of Israel. I and my progeny can only be complete with our God when we are within the land.
The Ramban thus accepts the Midrash connecting exile and the mitzvot at face value. God commands the Jewish nation to observe mitzvot such as tefillin and mezuza in exile, not only in fulfillment of their fundamental obligation to do so wherever they may be, but also in preparation for another time. Their daily observance of these mitzvot will be “practice” for the time when they will be able to observe these commandments in their fullness, upon a return to the land of Israel.
Moving past the Midrashic approach, another explanation can be offered, from the vantage point of historical hindsight, for the connection drawn in the text between the themes of exile and mitzva observance.
After centuries of exile and unimaginable persecution, an identifying Jew today can walk into a Jewish community anywhere in the world and feel at home. The traditions he observes will vary from place to place, the atmosphere will be different, but the essential experience will be familiar and the welcome he receives will be real. From Hong Kong to Berlin to Bombay to Kiev to Melbourne to New York, a Jew can find his people.
This phenomenon is nothing short of miraculous. A nation long ago dismissed by its enemies as destroyed continues to thrive after those enemies are long gone.
While rooted in God’s plan, this miracle of survival is very much a product of man’s effort. A Jew can recognize another Jew today for one reason, and one reason alone. He is – or somewhere along the line his recent ancestors were – loyal to Jewish tradition and practice. During the centuries of separation, when Jewish communities across the globe had little or no physical contact with each other, the mitzvot united them. That is why in our day, when so many of the walls have come down, Jews from vastly different cultural worlds are recognizable to each other.
The brilliance of the Torah is clear to see. God warns the nation of exile, then prescribes the one process that will allow them to survive that exile as a people: “And you shall place…” Be loyal to your tradition, perform the mitzvot, and even in the diaspora, you will endure.
Point to Ponder
As I write these words, the American Jewish community is carefully analyzing the results of yet another survey concerning the state of Jewish life in America. This report, conducted by the Pew Research Center, delineates significant changes in the nature of Jewish identity in the United States, where, as of 2013, one in five Jews now describe themselves as having no religion.
This trend towards secularism becomes even more pronounced when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Among older Jews, 93 percent identify as Jewish on the basis of religion, while only 7 percent describe themselves as having no religion. In contrast, a full 32 percent of identifying Jews in the youngest generation of adults describe themselves as having no religion, choosing instead to define their Jewishness on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
The ramifications of this shift are perhaps most clearly reflected in one staggering statistic contained in the report: if the Orthodox community is removed from the equation, the current intermarriage rate for the remaining Jewish population in America is 71 percent.
In the face of these statistics, numerous observers have suggested a clear strategic response. Meet the Jews where they are, the argument goes. Since a growing number of Jews affiliate culturally, eschew the religious approach and focus, instead, on cultural identification.
While this argument might sound logical at face value, upon consideration, its flaws become readily apparent. The American Jewish community finds itself in its current difficult state specifically because of the gradual, steady deterioration in Jewish observance and practice. As study of the Torah texts and concrete observance of the mitzvot has waned, the glue that held the Jewish people together across the millennia has disappeared. If we further divorce Judaism from our definition of Jewishness, we can fully expect the statistics to be even more tragic when the next report on the state of the American Jewish community is issued.
Ancestry, ethnicity and culture are critical components of Jewish identity. They are also excellent portals of entry through which unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews might be motivated to pass. Once through those portals, however, these individuals must be provided with reasons to stay. These reasons can only emerge with discovery of the powerfully relevant ideas embedded in the traditional texts and practices of our people.
Centuries ago, with frightening prescience, the Torah predicted the challenges of exile that would face us for centuries: “…and you will be swiftly banished from the goodly land that the Lord gives you.”
With equal prescience, the Torah also prescribes the key to our continued survival in the face of those challenges: “And you shall place these words of Mine upon your hearts and upon your souls, and you shall bind them for a sign upon your hands and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes…”