ONE TO RULE THEM ALL
Rabbi David Walk
As the book of Deuteronomy progresses the style and content change. Moshe begins his final address to the Jewish people with a lot of history and chastisement. With this week's Torah reading the emphasis shifts to the future, and especially the mitzvot which the Jews will have to perform when they inhabit the land. This change in tone is very evident from the beginning of the parsha. We are told that the covenant depends upon us keeping the mitzvot. All of God's promises will be fulfilled only if we are loyal to and observant of God's laws. Previously, listening to God wasn't necessarily about keeping eternal laws. It was about following direct orders to leave Egypt or cross the Sea or build the portable Temple. That has changed to obeying a legal system, which will endure forever. Our relationship with God is also changing from an observable presence as in the cloud and the manna to a reality hidden behind natural phenomena. When we get to Israel we will have to say Grace after Meals, even though the food we eat will be a result of farming, milling and baking, instead of daily Divine deliveries. The deeper God fades into the scenery the more important it is for us to acknowledge God's involvement in nature and history. This is going to be very hard, and that's why Moshe emphasizes a system of reward and punishment. The carrot will be rain and agricultural production (which I assume will include actual carrots), as described in the second paragraph of Shema, and the stick will be drought and famine. How will we get ourselves to be so disciplined? I think that there are two pieces of advice in this week's Torah reading.
Allow me to present the second idea first. Moshe asks the very reasonable question: And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, require of you? (Deuteronomy 10:12). The answer is quite simple: Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you this day, for your own good (verses 12 & 13). Ultimately we should keep to the game plan because it's good for us. We are the beneficiaries of diligent mitzva performance. Later in the parsha we have the second paragraph of Shema which states very clearly: So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today...then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil (11:13-14). Keeping the mitzvot shouldn't be so hard, because if you do keep them then only wonderful results will be in store. That's one answer to the question of how to encourage mitzva observance.
The other approach is more subtle. Moshe tells the Jewish people: Every mitzva which I command you today keep them ((8:1). Now that's a problem. The verse begins by discussing mitzva in the singular, but ends by telling us to observe them in the plural. Why the switch? The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz,1550 –1619) suggests initially that the singular usage refers to those righteous role models who will have tremendous influence on both their brethren and the world at large. The Talmud in Kiddushin (40b) makes this point: A righteous individual who executes even one mitzva is joyous because he moves himself and the entire world to this side of merit. So, in this scenario the mitzva process begins with one practitioner and spreads to many, hence the singular and then the plural.
Then the Kli Yakar proffers another proposition. Perhaps the singular doesn't refer to a person but to a mitzva. If one performs a certain mitzva really well then it will spread to include a vast array of mitzvot. But which mitzva will do the trick? One might say that it is tzitzit, because the verses back in Numbers seem to hint at that idea, and the Sages have said that there is a numerical clue to tzitzit equaling 613, the total number of mitzvot and the new kosher restaurant here in Stamford. The Kli Yakar, himself, proposes that the stem-cell mitzva is 'and you shall love your fellow as you love yourself.' Rabbi Akiva seemed to say that this mitzva is the moral basis for all observance. That reference in Kiddushin (40b) offers that the core mitzva of Torah study. Makes sense. Knowledge is power. The Talmud says that study leads to performance.
Perhaps we can look at this last idea a bit differently. What if it doesn't matter which mitzva one does really well? Perhaps any mitzva will do. Maimonides seems to subscribe to this last idea. When the Talmud stated: R. Chanina ben Akashya says, God wanted to bring merit to Israel, therefore God gave them many mitzvot, as it says: God wanted to exhibit His justice by magnifying His law and displaying it (Makkot 23b, Isaiah 42:21). Maimonides explains in his commentary on Mishneh that this famous statement means that there are so many mitzvot in order that everyone can find at least one precept which that person will consider worthwhile. The seed mitzva is different for each person. Each one of us must explore the variety of mitzvot in order to discover the one which will be the key to opening the universe of Torah life.
This makes sense, because we are all so very different. One may find ethical behavior moving, another may see ritual performance as inspiring, and then there's one guy who loves eating matzo. It makes no difference because the array of mitzvot allows us to major in one specific mitzva, and through performing it notice that the whole system is meaningful. The United States is based on E Pluribus Unam, out of many comes one. Moshe is teaching us that in Torah out of one can develop many.