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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VA'ET'HANAN
August 9, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 (Hertz, p. 755; Etz Hayim, p. 1005)
Triennial Cycle 2: Deuteronomy 12:29-14:29 (Hertz, p. 765; Etz Hayim, p. 1015)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5 (Hertz, p. 776; Etz Hayim, p. 1032)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Commandedness

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you. (Deut. 5:16)

Commentary

  1. Rabbi Eliezer was asked: How far does the honor of parents extend? Said he: Go forth and see what a certain non-Jew, Dama, son of Netinah by name, did in Ashkelon. The Sages sought jewels for the ephod (breastplate for the high priest) at a profit of six hundred thousand golden dinari - but as the key was lying under his father's pillow, he did not trouble him. The following year the Holy Blessed One gave him his reward: A red heifer was born to him in his herd. When the Sages of Israel went to him to buy it he said to them: I know you, that even if I asked you for all the money in the world you would pay me, but I ask you only the money I lost through my father's honor. And Rabbi Chanina said: If this is the reward given to someone who is not commanded and acts, then imagine how much greater the reward would be for someone who IS commanded and acts. For Rabbi Chanina said: Greater is the one who is commanded and acts than the one who is not commanded and acts. (Kiddushin 31a)
  2. It seems that the reason that the one who is commanded and acts is preferable is because he worries and is concerned more lest he transgress the mitzvah versus the one who is not commanded and acts who has "bread in his basket," i.e. if he wants, he does not have to fulfill the mitzvah. (Tosafot Kiddushin 31a on "Greater is the one who is commanded and acts")
  3. He is greater because he is worried to fulfill the commandment of his creator. (Tosafot Avodah Zara 3a on "Greater is the one who is commanded and acts")
  4. Many reasons are given explaining why the one who acts out of a sense of command is greater. Tosafot in Kiddushin explains that the commanded person, since he knows that he is obligated to act, his inclination rebels and tries to get him not to do the commandment. On the other hand, the one who is not commanded, since he can take a pass on doing the act at any time, he does not have to fight his rebellious nature. And there are those who wrote that since God did not command the latter to do the act, what pleasure does God derive from the person doing something he was not commanded to do? And in the name of the Ramban, it was written that the mitzvot are not commanded for God's benefit but for the human being's benefit and need to give people the opportunity to draw close to God through obedience to God's commandments. And for that reason, the one who is not commanded does nothing special. (Adin Steinsaltz Iyyunim Tractate Kiddushin 31a on "Greater is the one who is commanded and acts")
  5. We might find this logic perplexing, for we have been taught to believe that what is given freely is more desirable, more heartfelt, than what is given out of obligation or imperative. The problem with that logic, and the reason the rabbis came down on the side of obligation, was best expressed in the famous opening scene of "Fiddler on the Roof." After begging for alms and getting less than the week before, the petitioner sighs, "Because he had a bad week, I should suffer?" We can count on people who feel obligated to act on behalf of others, but people who do it out of the goodness of their hearts may not be there when doing good is inconvenient or gets in the way of competing desires. Aristotle commented much of what we call good character is rooted in habit and imposition. We cannot wait for people to be good; we must mandate it. "Virtue comes about, not by a process of nature, but by habituation." Being Jewish, doing Jewish, means behaving out of obligation, the obligation one's fellow, even when it is difficult to do. (Author Unknown)
  6. While motives and character assessment interest many secular moral thinkers, the true test of moral character is its reliability. And here, the religious character is often superior. As the ancient Talmudic dictum holds, "The person who is commanded and acts right is greater than the person who is not commanded and acts right." Why? Because the person who does good because he feels commanded is obeying a code that is greater than he is. Even if he does not feel like engaging in the act, he will do so. On the other hand, the individual who does not feel obligated to any outside command does good because he feels it is right and feels like doing so - and only then. In the final analysis, which individual is more morally reliable - the one who always does what he feels is right, or the one who acts in accordance with a moral code to which he feels obligated? With regard to credit and gratitude to anyone who does good in this world, if our greatest concern is that goodness increase and prevail, we cannot rely on those who answer only to themselves and to their consciences. When you have to answer only to yourself, it is all too easy to err and it is all too easy to rationalize away anything. (Dennis Prager, The Prager Perspective, February 15, 1998)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

We usually think that the volunteer deserves greater reward than the one who acts out of duty or obligation. Yet, the Talmud, in discussing the mitzvah of honoring parents, argues the opposite. It cites the example of a Roman nobleman named Dama ben Netina, someone not commanded to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring parents but who was part of a culture that valued respect for parents in an exemplary manner. The Talmud uses that example as a foil and contrasts Dama's reward to that of someone who does the same good act but out of a sense of command. The Talmud asserts that the latter gains a greater reward. What is the logic behind this paradox? Why is Rabbi Chanina's statement so central to Judaism? How is it one of the defining attitudes that distinguish Judaism from American liberalism?


 
 
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