PARASHAT EKEV: Who is interested in giving to us?

What can the Jewish nation expect if it takes the path of Torah?

The letter shin on a tefillin at a judaica factory in Moshav Komemiyut  (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
The letter shin on a tefillin at a judaica factory in Moshav Komemiyut
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
This Shabbat we will read one of the sections in the Torah that we recite twice a day in the Shema – the section of “Vehaya im shamo’a” (And it will be if you hearken…). This portion describes the pleasant life the People of Israel will have in its land, Eretz Yisrael, if the nation takes the right path of fulfilling the Torah and its commandments.
It also reveals what is to be expected if the nation does not take the right path and is exiled from its land.
At the end of the parasha, we are commanded to see this as one of the Torah’s most important principles: “And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deuteronomy 11:18-20).
Practically speaking, these verses have been kept by the Jewish people for thousands of years through two commandments: tefillin and mezuza.
This parasha is written among others on the parchment scroll inside tefillin (phylacteries) that bind the head and arm during prayer. It also appears alongside another section in the mezuza placed at the entrance of a Jewish home. The purpose of tefillin – placed on the head near the brain and the arm near the heart – is to act as a reminder of the Jewish principles written within them. The purpose of the mezuza is similar – to place at the entrance of every Jewish home the basic and important principles of Judaism. The mezuza is the “identity marker” of every Jewish home.
But why is this considered one of the main principles of Judaism? What significance is there to the promise of punishment or reward? Furthermore, our sages have taught us that fulfilling the commandments because of a desire for reward or fear of punishment is not the proper motivation.
A mature and wise person is expected to fulfill the commandments motivated by a belief in the righteousness of the deeds themselves and not as a means of attaining a reward or avoiding punishment.
Thus, for example, Maimonides on his commentary on the Mishna (Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 10) compares reward to the positive reinforcement appropriate for a child who does not yet comprehend the inherent value of good deeds.
In such a situation, a teacher promises a student a reward. The teacher – the mature person in the story – understands that the purpose of learning is not the reward that the student receives, and he hopes that the student will eventually grasp this at some point down the line.
Maimonides explains that people are the same, in that sometimes the concepts of reward and punishment are necessary to encourage the right behavior. But the expectation is that man will reach the stage at which he fulfills the commandments because he recognizes their religious and moral value and not because he expects a reward.
So why is this section describing reward and punishment considered one of the principles of Judaism and written in the tefillin and mezuza? The answer to this is in an additional verse said every morning and evening in the Shema, which sheds light on the entire section.
“In order that your days may increase and the days of your children, on the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them, as the days of heaven above the Earth (ibid., 21).
If we ask what the purpose is of this parasha, the answer is right here before us: We are to fulfill the commandments and receive the expected reward in our land. The verses are not meant to instruct us to fulfill the commandments in order to attain the reward, but to tell us that God wants to shower us with good things and therefore He teaches us how we can attain this promised reward.
The main message here is that God wants to provide us with economic and spiritual sustenance in our land. Therefore, He tells us what the conditions are to merit what He wants to give us. He wants to bestow goodness upon us, but we must be worthy of His gifts: health, abundance and a joyful life.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.