The 21st century is a very perilous time for religion. The rapid progress of society in this age bases itself on man’s influence; very little credit goes to God. Even for people who do believe in God (which, thankfully, remains a very large proportion of the American population), religiousness is not the number one concern. Secularism is promoted in the world we live in; the prevailing ideology is the one that puts pleasure over rules and substance.
In the Jewish world, the growth of secularism is even worse. Assimilation is rampant in the Jewish community; even synagogue attendance (of any denomination) is down. According to a 2003 poll, Jews are much less actively religious than their Catholic and Protestant counterparts; compared with respective figures of 79% and 90%, only 48% of Jews claim to believe in God. And according to the same poll, the percent of Jews who go to a synagogue at least once a month is a minuscule 16 percent. This means that 84% of American Jewry does not go to Shul at least one out of every four Shabbatot, not to even mention the amount that go to Shul on a weekly basis. Jews marry non-Jews, and do not pass on even the most basic traditions of Judaism. Following this path, slowly, but steadily, our religion will die out. (Editors’ note: Such polls usually do not account for the Chareidi community.)
This is the exact scenario that Moshe Rabeinu tries to avoid in Sefer Devarim. The entire Sefer is a book of speeches, speeches that Moshe wants to leave Bnei Yisrael with as his legacy. Both classical and modern interpretations separate the Sefer into a few speeches: a summary of the history of the events of Bnei Yisrael as a nation to this point, assorted Mitzvot, Mitzvot relating to Eretz Yisrael, and then finally a closing speech, ending with his Berachot to the Shevatim and the Ha’azinu speech. The historical speech takes place over Perakim 1 through 3, followed by the various Ne’umei HaMitzvot (speeches regarding the Mitzvot) until the Tochachah late in Parashat Ki Tavo.
One would expect there to be a clean break between the two speeches. In fact, this is how the Christian division of the Sefer has it: Chapter 3 concludes with the end of the history speech, and Chapter 4 begins, “VeAtah Yisrael Shema El HaChukim VeEl HaMishpatim…” “And now, Israel, listen to the laws…” However, the Jewish division of the book is not as clean. Parashat VaEtchanan opens with the final eight Pesukim of Moshe’s history lecture, describing how he pleaded with Hashem to enter Eretz Yisrael (to no avail), and how Yehoshua was ordained as the next leader of Bnei Yisrael. At this point, Moshe begins his Mitzvot speech.
Why is the proper separation of Parashiyot this way? What connection is there between Moshe’s two seemingly unrelated speeches that warrants such a smooth transition between them – there is not even an Aliyah break to separate them!
Another interesting quirk in this Parashah is towards its end, at the end of Shishi. One of the many sections of this Parashah is the famous section of “Ki Yish’alcha Bincha Machar” “When your son asks you tomorrow…” (Devarim 7:20). This section is the response a father should have to his child explaining the reason he performs all of the Mitzvot: Way back, his ancestors were slaves to Par’oh in Mitzrayim, and in many miraculous acts, Hashem redeemed them and brought them to Eretz Yisrael; along the way, He commanded them to perform these Mitzvot. Finally, the section concludes, “UTzedakah Tihyeh Lanu Ki Nishmor LaAsot Et Kol HaMitzvah HaZot Lifnei Hashem Elokeinu KaAsher Tzivanu” “And it will be a good thing for us to do this whole commandment in front of Hashem, our God, as he commanded us” (7:28). This last line seems to be a bit irrelevant to the question; in fact, it reads more like the father’s editorial than a logical proof.
Many commentators tackle this interesting Pasuk. Rashi answers with a couple of explanations, including that either this Pasuk is a hint to the reward to come in Olam HaBa for performing the Mitzvot, or that it is the just thing to do, as Hashem is our master. Chizkuni answers that this hint of extra benefit would be an added incentive for the son to perform the Mitzvot.
I, however, would like to suggest a new interpretation, one that I hope will tie both questions together. Though it is easy to translate the Pasuk as saying, “it will be good for us if we do the Mitzvot,” it is also possible to translate it as stating, “it will be good for us that we have the Mitzvot to keep.” The mere presence of commandments is a benefit. But what exactly does this mean, that it is a benefit?
I think the overall theme of Sefer Devarim is the true answer to this question. Moshe speeches can be categorized into three main sections: the past, the Mitzvot, and the future. The first three Perakim are Moshe telling Bnei Yisrael how they got to this point, in the middle are the Mitzvot, and Moshe’s final speeches are about how Bnei Yisrael should lead their lives when he is gone. Simply put, it is a transition of, “Where did we come from?” to, “What do we do now?” to, “Where do we go from here?” This transition is Moshe’s message to Bnei Yisrael to keep their faith and stay with Hashem, even when he is gone. But what lies in between is the key to a safe transition: The Mitzvot are what keep us connected to our history, and are what keep us on the right path for our future.
This overall theme is a macrocosm of Parashat VaEtchanan itself. In the beginning of the Parashah, Moshe concludes his speech on the history of Bnei Yisrael, the last portion of how they got to Sedei Moav, about to enter Eretz Yisrael. After this comes a list of Mitzvot, leading into the repetition of the Aseret HaDibrot, the basic tenets of Jewish faith. These ideas are what connect Bnei Yisrael to Hashem, starting with, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha.” The next section is another keystone to the Jewish faith: “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” Bnei Yisrael must understand that Hashem is the only God, and therefore they must abstain from Avodah Zarah, the following section in VaEtchanan. Finally, the Parasha comes to a close with the small section of the future: “Ki Yish’alcha Binecha Machar” “When your son asks you tomorrow:” This small section is a hint to the future – Bnei Yisrael will grow continuously farther from Moshe and a close connection with Hashem, and the next generation will always wonder, “Why are we doing this?” To this question, Moshe answers that it is based on our history, that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim, and it is based on the fact that He chose us to serve Him. And in between, we have to do our part to stay connected. How do we do this? This connection is the “Mitzvah” that Hashem gave us; our Judaism lies in our observance of the Mitzvot.
Finally, Moshe opines, “UTzedaka Tihyeh Lanu,” it will be good for us that we keep these Mitzvot. This does not only mean that we will be rewarded for observing the Mitzvot, but that we are already rewarded in the fact that we have the Mitzvot. Without these, we would be lost, a people without a faith. People must have some substance in their lives to make them satisfactory, to make life worth living. For Jews, it is the Mitzvot.
A recent study by Gallup determined that, statistically, the happiest man in America is Alvin Wong. He is Asian-American, is 69 years old, and lives in Hawaii. But the kicker is what comes next: He is an observant Jew. The fact that he keeps Mitzvot puts Mr. Wong high up on the happiness index; the observance in his life adds substance, meaning, to the fluff often found in the world. We should all take this message to heart, that the Mitzvot are our link to the future, and must be passed down. But they are not a burden, they are meant for our pleasure, and they provide our lives with meaning that no secularism can provide.