To Observe Torah, You Must be Humble When Admonished
It is written, “And it will be, when [eikev] you listen to these ordinances and you observe and perform them, Hashem your G-d will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your fathers” (Devarim 7:12).
I would like to explain why the verse uses the term eikev by referring to what the wisest of men said: “Stern discipline awaits one who forsakes the path. He who hates admonishment will die” (Mishlei 15:10). Rabbeinu Yona explains: “Your sin becomes compounded if you are not moved by what those who admonish you say, for they would have warned you, but you hardened your heart and did not take heed. As it is said, ‘Admonishment enters more deeply into one who understands than a hundred blows into a fool. A wrongdoer wants only to rebel, so a cruel angel will be sent against him’ [Mishlei 17:10-11]” (Sha’arei Teshuvah 2:11). This means that a wicked man does not humble himself before those who admonish him, but on the contrary rebels. Since he did not yield before the words of those who admonished him, a cruel angel will be sent against him. This punishment is measure for measure, for those who issue admonishments are called angels, as it is written: “They insulted the messengers [lit. ‘angels’] of G-d and scorned His words and taunted His prophets” (II Chronicles 36:16). As King Solomon said, “Stern discipline awaits one who forsakes the path. He who hates admonishment will die” (Mishlei 15:10). It is true that one who leaves the right path and transgresses the Torah deserves to be sternly disciplined. However there is still hope that he will eventually listen and turn from his evil ways. Still worse is one who despises admonishment, in which case there is no chance that stern discipline will return him to the right path, meaning that he will inevitably head towards death. When someone commits a sin, desire overtakes him and he may regret not having had the strength to resist his desires. He may then yearn for admonishment and hope for it. However a person who hates admonishment is already in a hopeless state, and such hatred testifies that he detests the words of Hashem!
We therefore learn that a person is forbidden from hating admonishment, for the Torah is only acquired through a love of admonishment (Pirkei Avoth 6:6). As our Sages have said, “When you have friends, some of whom admonish you while others compliment you, love those who admonish you and hate those who compliment you. In fact those who admonish you lead you to life in the World to Come, while those who compliment you lead you out of this world” (Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan 29). The Sages count a hatred for admonishment among those things which impede teshuvah (Derech Eretz 2).
This is why the Torah states, “And it will be [vehaya], when [eikev] you listen,” and we know that the term vehaya always denotes joy (Bereshith Rabba 42:3). Furthermore, the term eikev evokes the heel, alluding to the fact that a person must yield before those who admonish him and listen to what they have to say. He must be like the heel, which is lowest part of the body, and rejoice in complying with their words.
My Heart Did Not Grow Proud
When a person rejoices in hearing admonishment, and he listens to those who give them – as it is written: “And it will be, when you listen to these ordinances” (Devarim 7:12) – G-d says: “For them I will fulfill the oath that I made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who conducted themselves with humility.” Regarding Abraham it is said, “I am but dust and ashes” (Bereshith 18:27). Regarding Isaac it is said that great is humility, which constituted the glory of our father Isaac. In fact Avimelech chased him from his kingdom, and when he returned to find him, Isaac’s heart did not grow proud, nor did he repay Avimelech according to his deeds. Rather, in Isaac’s great humility he welcomed Avimelech with love and provided him with food and drink, both him and his men. The same occurred with Jacob, as we read: “I am too small for all the kindnesses [that I have received]” (Bereshith 32:11).
The Holy One, blessed be He, promised our fathers abundant descendants by the merit of eikev, as it is written: “I will surely bless you and greatly increase your descendants like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore, and all your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, for you have listened to My voice” (Bereshith 22:17-18). We also read, “Eikev [Because] Abraham listened to My voice” (ibid. 26:5).
We should be surprised by this and ask the following question: If Abraham’s offspring will be like the stars of the heavens, then why is the sand on the seashore mentioned, and vice versa? The answer is that G-d promised Abraham that by the study of Torah, his offspring would shine like the stars. Since Abraham was afraid that this would lead them to pride, G-d said to him: Because you lowered yourself before Me like a heel, conducting yourself with humility, I will surely infuse them with humility and a love for admonishment, and they will be like the sand, which is trodden upon by everyone and which feels nothing.
Generally speaking, the Torah can only acquired and endure with someone who loves to hear admonishment. In fact he can only take action by listening to admonishment, which is why the verse says: “When you listen to these ordinances and you observe and perform them” (Devarim 7:12). When a person listens to admonishment, he will take action, as Rabbeinu Yona writes: “Listen well, surrender yourself, and return in teshuvah when admonished by sages and those who admonish you. Take each word of admonishment to heart without exception. By doing so, you will go from darkness to great light in an instant. For if you listen and internalize, and you understand in your heart and do teshuvah – taking the words of those who admonish you to heart as soon as you hear them, taking it upon yourself from that day on to fulfill all you are taught by those who grasp Torah, and being cautious about the things which those who know alert you about from then on – then your teshuvah will take effect and you will become an entirely different person. In fact from the instant you accept these words in your mind and take them to heart, you will earn the merit and reward for all the mitzvot and admonishments. How happy you will be, for you will have exonerated yourselves in a brief instant” (Sha’arei Teshuvah 2:10).
On the verse, “The Children of Israel went and did” (Shemot 12:28), our Sages say: “Did they already do? Was this not said to them on Rosh Chodesh? However since they accepted this upon themselves, Scripture credits them for it as if they had already done so” (Mechilta, Bo). It is said, “One whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom will endure, as it is said: ‘We shall do and we shall hear’ [Shemot 24:7]” (Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan 22). A person who wholeheartedly commits himself to observing and doing, according to what he has been taught and according to the laws given to him, from that day on he has a reward for all the mitzvot because he carefully listened to words of Torah, arraying himself with justice and acquiring the merit of what was revealed to him and what was hidden from him. He will then constantly knock at the door of those who admonish him, thereby learning from everything he is told. His deeds will be more numerous than his wisdom, for there are certain things which he does not understand, and he will be rewarded for them.
As the Children of Israel said at Sinai, “We will do and we will hear” – they decided to do before having heard. Otherwise, it is impossible for a person’s deeds to be greater than his wisdom.