It’s Okay to Settle for the Imitation

Rabbi Bernie Fox

When you shall beget children, and children's children, and youshall have been long in the land, and shall deal corruptly, and make a graven image, even the form of any thing, and shall do that which is evil in the sight of Hashem your G-d, to provoke Him. (Sefer Devarim 4:25)

1. Moshe teaches Bnai Yisrael that Hashem forgives our sins

Parshat VaEtchanan continues the presentation of Moshe’s final address to Bnai Yisrael.  In his address, Moshe instructed the nation in mitzvot he had not previously communicated.  He added details regarding some mitzvot previously presented.  He admonished the nation to observe the commandments.  He explained that the nation’s future will be determined by its faithfulness.  Observance of the commandments will lead to blessings of abundance and success.  Abandonment or neglect of the Torah will be punished with devastation and exile.  

However, Moshe’s presentation began with a review of Bnai Yisrael’s experiences since leaving Mount Sinai.  Moshe described the sins of the nation and he placed special emphasis upon the sin of the spies.

Why did Moshe present this review of the nation’s failures?  One reason is that he wished to prevent these failures from recurring.  He reviewed, evaluated and outlined the consequences of the nation’s sins. He hoped that through understanding these sins and recognizing their terrible consequences, the people would be less likely to repeat these or similar behaviors.

Nachmanides acknowledges that this was one of Moshe’s objectives.  However, he explains that Moshe had another purpose. The main body of his address consisted of two components.  Moshe completed his presentation of the mitzvot and he warned Bnai Yisrael of the consequences associated with the observance or the neglect of the commandments.

Moshe feared that these two components would be received poorly.  The people would understand that they are expected to observe the commandments scrupulously.  They would realize that terrible consequences would befall them if they failed.  They would despair.  They would conclude that their destruction and exile are inevitable.  They would reason that they could not succeed in achieving perfect observance of the commandments.  Hashem’s punishment for their failure would be terrible and immediate.  

Moshe addressed this fear with his review of the nation’s experiences since departing Mount Sinai.  They had sinned.  Some of their sins were horrible.  Yet, they stood poised to enter the Land of Israel.  Despite the enormity of their wrongdoings, Hashem had forgiven them and spared them.  Moshe was acknowledging the people’s fears and communicating to them that although they would inevitably sin, they could be assured that Hashem would forgive them and spare them[1]. 

In your distress, when all these things come upon you, in the end of days, you will return to Hashem your G-d, and hearken unto His voice.  For Hashem your G-d is a merciful G-d. He will not fail you, neither destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore unto them. (Sefer Devarim 4:30-31)

2. Moshe’s vision of Bnai Yisrael’s future failures

One of the most moving and disturbing portions of Parshat VaEtchanan is Moshe’s vision of the nation’s future.  He explains that after the Bnai Yisrael settles the Land of Israel and becomes accustomed to being rooted in the land, they will stray from the worship of Hashem and adopt idolatry.  They will be punished severely.  Bnai Yisrael will be exiled from the land and dispersed among the nations.  

This vision does not seem to accord with the message that Moshe hoped to achieve.  He is not merely outlining the consequences of abandoning the Torah.  He is foretelling that the people will fail and experience the terrible punishment of exile.  Where is the message of assurance that Moshe wished to communicate?

3. Moshe’s message of consolation

In order to reconcile Moshe’s vision with the intent that Nachmanides attributes to him, the next portion of Moshe’s vision must be considered.  Moshe tells the people that in their bitter exile, and in the distant lands of their dispersion, they will return to Hashem.  When they seek Hashem and turn to Him, He will respond and He will redeem them.  According to Nachmanides, it seems that it is this message of inevitable redemption that is the essential element of Moshe’s vision.  In other words, Moshe understands the people’s anxiety.  They fear that they will sin and experience terrible consequences. Moshe does not dismiss their fears.  Their fears rest upon an honest and frank assessment of their failings.  Instead, Moshe tells the nation that its fears are deserved.  However, they can also take courage from the inevitability of their redemption.  Hashem will never abandon them or forsake His people.

Why will Hashem never abandon these people?  Why will the enormity and consistency of their sins not eventually completely alienate Hashem from Bnai Yisrael?  Moshe explains that this is a consequence of the covenant that Hashem made with our patriarchs.  Moshe then elaborates on this covenant and its implications.  He reminds the nation that they were redeemed from Egypt though wonders never before observed by humanity.  Hashem performed these wonders as an expression of His love for our forefathers.  This same covenant and love assures the ultimate redemption of Bnai Yisrael from the exile that Moshe envisioned.

4. The meaning of Hashem’s attributes

The Shema is recited daily.  Its first paragraph is presented in the latter portion of the parasha.  The first passage declares the unity of Hashem.  Maimonides explains that the unity of Hashem is one of the fundamental principles of the Torah.  He explains that the unity of Hashem does not merely mean that there is only one G-d. It means that Hashem is an absolute unity.  He is not subject to division.  He does not have parts[2].   Also included in our understanding of Hashem’s unity, is that He does not have qualities or characteristics.  

How do we reconcile this to the Torah’s ascription of various characteristics to Hashem?  If Hashem does not have characteristics, then how can the Torah describe Him as just, kind, charitable, or merciful?  The answer to this question is very important.  We cannot know Hashem’s nature and the Torah does not mean to suggest that He possesses these characteristics in the traditional or literal sense.  Instead, the Torah is describing patterns of behaviors.  Hashem conducts Himself with justice, kindness, charity, and mercy. [3]

This raises an important question.  The characteristics that the Torah ascribes to Hashem are not literal characteristics.  They are descriptions of patterns that can be identified in Hashem’s behavior. Why is it important for the Torah to identify these patterns?  Why does not the Torah simply acknowledge that Hashem’s nature is unknowable? Why does it substitute for the unknowable a description of Hashem’s behaviors?  This issue deserves extensive discussion.  However, one aspect of that discussion will be explored here.

For if you shall diligently keep all this commandment which I command you, to do it, to love Hashem your G-d, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave unto Him, (Sefer Devarim 11:22)

5. Imitating Hashem

The Torah commands us to travel in the ways of Hashem.  According to Maimonides this is one of the Torah’s 613 commandments.  What is the meaning of this directive?  Maimonides explains that this commandment requires that we imitate Hashem’s behavior.  In other words, Hashem’s behavior provides a model for our own ethical and moral conduct[4].

We can now appreciate the importance of the Torah’s descriptions of Hashem’s behavior.  These descriptions do not reveal to us Hashem’s true nature.  His nature is beyond our understanding.  However, these descriptions of His behavior do provide us with a guide for our own conduct.

6. Imitating Hashem’s forgiveness

Our parasha provides an illustration of this concept.  As explained above, one of Moshe’s objectives was to respond to the nation’s anxiety.  They understood the terrible consequences they would experience if they would be unfaithful to the Torah. They feared that at some point, they would fail to be faithful to the Torah. These consequences will befall them.  Moshe assures them that even when they are exiled and dispersed among the nations, they will not be abandoned by Hashem.  He will redeem them from their exile and restore Bnai Yisrael.  Hashem created a covenant with the patriarchs and because of this covenant and His love for the patriarchs, He will never forsake their descendants.

In other words, despite our unfaithfulness, Hashem will not abandon us.  Instead, He will await our repentance.  When we reach out to Hashem, He will respond with His forgiveness and answer our prayers.

When we are wronged by an individual, we find ourselves in Hashem’s place.  How should we respond to the harm that has been wrongfully committed against us?  Should we sever our relationship with the person who wronged us?  Should we recognize that despite our conflict and the wrong endured, we remain bound by our brotherhood?  Should we yearn for the restoration of the bonds of friendship and fraternity?

We are commanded to follow in the ways of Hashem.  This commandment tells us that the answer to our question is found in the study of Hashem’s behavior.  He does not cast away His people.  He awaits their repentance and when His children call unto Him, He responds with love and compassion.  

This should be our model. Others will wrong us.  But even when we are treated unjustly or insensitively, we should yearn for the restoration of the bonds of love and compassion with our estranged brother. n

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim, Introduction.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 1:7.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 52.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 8.