8/26/2005

Ekev: The Little Things and the 'Greater Good'

יב וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם--וְשָׁמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.
And it shall come to pass, because ye hearken to these ordinances, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep with thee the covenant and the mercy which He swore unto thy fathers
Rashi, ad loc.
רש"י דברים פרק ז פסוק יב

(יב) והיה עקב תשמעון - אם המצות הקלות שאדם דש בעקביו תשמעון:
ושמר ה' וגו' - ישמור לך הבטחתו
If you will listen (lit. 'On the heels of your listening') - If you listen to the 'light' mitzvot that everyone tramples with their heels
And God will observe his... - He will keep his promise to you

It seems that the second part of Rashi is pointing out that this 'vav' is a conjunction which connects the two sides of an 'if...then' statement, in distinction from the 'vav's of the preceding words. The startling part is the first part - it's all about the details. The little 'mishpatim' which we take lightly.

We might be tempted to say that Rashi's instructing us to be vigilant about the observance of lesser rituals, like washing mayim acharonim or putting on one's shoes and socks in the proper order. The things which are possibly or probably obligatory, but which we tend to trample.

However, the verse refers to mishpatim specifically. These generally include what we refer to as civil law, social regulations, and torts. It can also include not-regulatory mitzvot such as tzedakah and chesed, taking care of widows and orphans, welcoming the stranger, etc. If this is the case, the implications Rashi's words are radically altered and incredibly profound. It's the 'little' and 'trampled', routine engagement with other people which form the bread and butter of observing the mishpatim and thereby fulfilling the covenant. It could be that in reality the term 'mishpatim' here refers to all of the Torah's commandments, but one can't escape the formulation which refers specifically to justice.

This came home earlier today, when I read the following passage, which was penned by the Russian-Jewish author Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate, and cited in full by Levinas in a chapter of In the Time of Nations entitled 'Beyond Memory', on p. 91:
...I do not believe in the good, I believe in kindness...Not even Herod shed blood in the name of evil...

Humanity had never yet heard those words [from the New Testament - AR]: "Judge not, that ye shall not be judged...Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you. Pray for those who curse you..."
What did that doctrine of peace and love bring to humanity? The tortures of the Inquisition, the struggle against heresies in France, Italy, and Germany, the war between Catholics and Protestants...

I have been able to see in action the implacable force of the idea of social good born in our country (i.e., Russia - AR). I saw it again in 1937; I saw that in the name of an idea of good as humane as Christianity, people were exterminated. I saw entire villages starving; in Siberia I saw the children of deported peasants dying in the snow...

There exists, side by side with this so terrible greater good, human kindness in everyday life. It is the kindness of an old lady who gives a piece of bread to a convict along the roadside. It is the kindness of a soldier who holds his canteen out to a wounded enemy. The kindness of youth taking pity on old age, the kindness of a peasant who hides a Jew in his barn. It is the kindness of those prison gaurds who risk their own freedom, smuggle the letters of prisoners out to wives and mothers...

The history of man is the struggle of evil trying to crush the tiny seed of humanity. But if even now the human has not been killed in man, evil will never prevail.
Levinas himself asks about this passage:
"Were these truths lying dormant in a forgotten corner of some letters or syllables of the Scripture- only to awaken as Word of God in the Jewish and non-Jewish suffering of the twentieth century?"

Shabbat Shalom
Post a Comment