Rabbi David Walk
Who is the most observant person who ever lived? Maybe Rabbi Akiva. How about Rashi or the Rambam? Who do you think? Gee, I would have said Sherlock Holmes. Nothing escapes his scrutiny; his powers of observation are legend. See the problem? What do we mean by observant? Well, there's actually another problem, Holmes never really lived. However, he was a constant companion of my youth, both in books and on screen (Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, I loved 'em all, except Robert Downey Jr.). The essential term I'm trying to understand is SHAMUR, which we usually translate as 'guard', but in many contexts we render it 'observe'. And the best place to investigate our issue is the beginning of this week's Torah reading.
Before I get down to business, I must editorialize. I don't like the epithets DATI and CHILONI, normally translated as 'religious' and 'secular'. Using those expressions to describe an individual requires a peak into their soul. I prefer to say SHOMER MITZVOT or not, which generally is an evaluation of visible behavior. Even that is chutzpa, because who am I to categorize another, but sometimes it's just convenient to have these labels, like when getting recommendations for a roommate or a shiduch. Please, use them sparingly and cautiously. And this begins our discussion what do we mean when we say someone observes (SHOMER) mitzvot? One might assume it means to do or perform these Divine acts. But that leads us to the problem which appears in our parsha.
Our reading begins: If only (EIKEV, also difficult to translate) you will listen to these laws, safeguard (observe?) them and perform them, then the Lord your God will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness which were sworn to your ancestors (Devarim 7:12). So much to parse in that pasuk! But my difficulty is that the verse separates observance (U'SHMARTEM) from performance (V'ASITEM). What's the difference?
This phrase appeared last week in the famous verse: Therefore, keep (U'SHMARTEM) and do (ASITEM) them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations which shall hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people' (Devarim 4:6). Over there, Rashi explains that the SHMIRA is MISHNE or Torah study. I have two problems with that explanation. Firstly, the root SHAMAR is related to guarding, and in our verse the continuation of the thought is that God will SHAMUR our covenant and relationship. That thought doesn't lend itself to study. And let's be honest, when we get up in the middle of the night to do SHMIRA, we're guarding against bad guys, not studying Torah. In my old IDF days, if I got caught learning during my SHMIRA, I could have gone to jail. Baruch Hashem, I was never caught.
Here's my second problem: We have a beautiful statement in the blessing recited immediately before we chant Shema every morning: Place in our hearts the urge to understand, to intuit, to listen, to learn, to teach, to safeguard (LISHMOR), to perform and to fulfill all the concepts of the study of Your Torah, in love. Marvelous! Sadly, I don't think many daily daveners give that declaration its proper due, because we're rushing or busy readying our tzitzit for Shema. In this list, clearly study and SHMIRA must be different concepts. Problem number 2 for Rash's approach.
I think that we can get the beginning of a solution to our conundrum in a verse from Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Tanach. Intellectual endeavor is a major theme running through this long poem, and verse 34 gives us a new way of seeing our problematic term: Give me understanding that I may treasure (ESHMIRENA) Your Torah and guard it with a full heart. The SHMIRA is cognitive. We can only properly guard something if we have the knowledge to appreciate its true worth. One will be pretty lackadaisical in their protection of an item whose value seems trivial. I can imagine a guard not being overly concerned about the fate of a Jackson Pollack painting, before being informed that it's worth millions. I mean it does look like the product of a preschooler to the uninitiated (me).
I believe that this is what Rashi means. SHMIRA is connected to study, because it is the result of intellectual effort. I cherish, treasure and safeguard mitzvot because I've arrived at the conclusion that they have infinite worth. Then, hopefully, I can cross over to the last two items in the list of activities recited before Shema, namely performance and fulfillment. The latter term implies that I did the deed correctly.
So, what do we mean when we identify someone as SHOMER MITZVOT? I think that we can now state that it doesn't have to mean that the person actually did the mitzva. SHMIRA is an act of cognition. I can be a SHOMER MITZVOT by helping others do mitzvot. I believe strongly that in the famous relationship of Yissachar and Zevulon (Breishit Raba 99:9), Zevulon was SHOMER the mitzva of Torah study without ever opening a book. His support for Yissachar in his studies fulfilled the criteria of SHMIRA. I'm not encouraging the non-performance of mitzvot, but we must acknowledge that supporting and heartening others has its worth as well.
I'd like to think that as a Jewish educator over the years I got some credit for the mitzvot I hopefully inspired others to perform. I remember taking eighth graders to daven VATIKIN (sunrise) at the Kotel. One of these young people didn't really like to daven, but after this experience told me, 'The only sound I heard when I prayed was the flapping of the pigeons' wings. I could swear they were carrying my prayer to heaven.'
Often, there are many partners in a particular mitzva performance. Let's remember to credit the supporting cast as well as the star performer. As the blind poet John Milton wrote, 'They also serve who only stand and wait.'