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Moses opens the section of his final address to the Israelites that contains the bulk of the commandments with:
See! Today I put before you the blessing and the curse. The blessing: if you obey the commandments… And the curse… if you do not obey the commandments… and follow the gods of other people you never knew (11:26:28).
He did not tell the Israelites to choose between one and the other. He merely touched on the consequences on keeping, and jettisoning the commandments, before going into the details of how the Israelites were expected to conduct themselves from entry into the Promised Land (without his leadership) onwards.
But later on, Moses concludes this long section with something more demanding:
See! Today I put before you life and the good; death and the bad… Choose life, so that you and your children may live (30:15,19).
Moses did not open the blessings and curses telling the Israelites to 'choose life'. That only came at the end. For the following reason:
Such is the basis of the Torah that it works when a person commits himself to keep everything it requires. A person can meticulously keep Shabbat and Kashrut, but maliciously swindle in business. Another may conduct his affairs strictly within Torah standards, yet neglect Shabbat and Kashrut. Though the mitzvot observed in both cases are meritorious, that person has not been living the Torah experience. It is holistic - everything connects with everything else, to the degree that if something is missing, the whole structure can no longer be worth more than the sum of the individual parts. Like a computer missing just one vital connection. Indeed, the Hafetz Haim was known to have remarked that a person who deserves to be called a Jew is someone who believes he is expected to keep everything, even if he himself does not currently succeed.
However that was not the approach of Hillel. As the Talmud records:
A non-Jew came before Hillel and demanded: 'Convert me to Judaism on condition that I may become the High Priest'. Hillel accepted him, with the following question: 'Can any man be made a king if he does not know the arts of government? Please go and study the arts of government! He then studied Torah from the beginning. When he finally got up to the fourth book of the Torah he read those fateful words: 'Any stanger (non-priest) that comes near to G-d service shall die' (Num. 1:51). He then asked Hillel: 'To whom does this verse apply?' Hillel replied: 'Even to David, King of Israel'. Whereupon the convert reasoned: if the Israelites (including royalty), who are called G-d's children (14:1) may not serve as priests, how much more is that true of my situation. Later on, he came before Hillel and said to him, 'O gentle Hillel; blessings rest on thy head for bringing me under the wings of the Divine Presence! (Shabbat 31a).
This was the approach of Moses. He opened with the blessings and curses, but he did not tell them 'all or nothing'. That might have put them off. He merely put it that they should obey, but did not spell out that refusing to follow some of the more 'unpalatable' requirements would put them outside the Torah experience. Some people might have felt like saying: 'well in return for the way would like to live, we'll keep 90% of the Torah and suffer the consequences of neglecting the other 10%'.
And like Hillel, Moses did not put anything in his words to put such people off. He merely brought them together so that they might 'go and learn'. Which they did - all together - as brought in the next few Parshiot.
But by the time they completed it, they were able to see the whole picture. Like the convert who finally accepted that he should become a Jew even if he would have to change his aspirations. Therefore it was only at that stage - at the very end - that they could follow Moses with 'all' and he could tell them in absolute terms - one or the other 'Choose Life!'
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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