Looking to the Past as a Warning for the Future
by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
It is written, “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you hearken to the mitzvot of Hashem your G-d that I command you today. And the curse, if you do not hearken to the mitzvot of Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 11:26-28).
We need to understand why this passage states, in regards to the blessings: “The blessing, that you hearken,” yet for the curses it uses an expression of uncertainty: “The curse, if you do not hearken.”
We must also question whether Moshe was pointing out something specific to the Children of Israel when he told them, “See, I set before you today a blessing.”
Constant Pleasure is Not Pleasure
Earlier in the Torah we read, “And it will be, eikev [when] you hearken to these ordinances” (Devarim 7:12). Here Rashi explains that eikev refers to easy mitzvot that a person steps on with his heel (eikev). In other words, we must not perform easy mitzvot like a person who does something habitually, without paying attention to it, as it is written: “Like rote learning of human commands” (Isaiah 29:13). Rather, the mitzvot should seem as if they were given today.
Hence the Torah states, Vehaya eikev (“And it will be, when”), teaching us that Jews must perform mitzvot with joy, for the term vehaya denotes joy (Bereshith Rabba 42:3). In fact when a person performs mitzvot with joy, it is a sure sign that they are not burdensome to him, that he is not doing them out of habit. Rather, he performs mitzvot because he loves them, because they are precious to him.
As a general rule, when a person gets used to something, even something that is enjoyable, it no longer seems enjoyable to him. In fact the Sages have said, “Constant pleasure is not pleasure.” Moshe therefore told the Children of Israel: Think about the fact that whoever distances himself from Torah, it is as if he were distancing himself from life itself, as it is written: “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Mishlei 3:18). If a person were to object by saying that we see evildoers succeeding in life, he must realize that although they are succeeding in this world, they will lose out in the World to Come.
When Did the Problem Start?
Actually, the Holy One, blessed be He, punishes the wicked even in this world. Thus we read, “Beware lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then Hashem’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land that Hashem gives you” (Devarim 11:16-17).
How do we know that this is correct, that the Holy One, blessed be He, removes evildoers from this world? Moshe said: “See” – you have seen the deeds of your fathers, for G-d desired to bring them into Eretz Israel as long as they did His will. However He made them wander in the desert for 40 years when they acted improperly, until they died. When did the problem start? It was when they protested the decisions of Hashem by weeping, as it is said: “Moshe heard the people weeping throughout their families, each at the entrance of his tent” (Bamidbar 11:10). It is also said, “The entire assembly lifted up their voice and cried aloud, and the people wept that night” (ibid. 14:1). Here the Sages have said, “That night was the night of Tisha B’Av. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: ‘You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for weeping throughout the generations to come’ ” (Taanith 29a). Hence this is what Moshe told the Children of Israel: If you want to be among those who enter Eretz Israel, be careful to do G-d’s will in joy. From here we learn that when Moshe gave them “the blessing,” he used a term that denotes certainty – “that you hearken.” Yet when speaking of the curses, Moshe did not use the term “that,” but rather “if”: If you act improperly, as your fathers did, know that it will lead to curses.
On the verse, “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse” (Devarim 11:26), the Sages in the Midrash teach: “Why is this said? It is because it is written: ‘I have placed life and death before you’ [Devarim 30:19]. The Children of Israel might think, ‘Since G-d placed two things before us – the path of life and the path of death – let us choose the path that will please us. Hence it is written, ‘Choose life’ ” (Sifrei, Devarim 11:26).
This is like someone who finds himself at a crossroads, with two possible paths before him. One is smooth at the beginning but filled with obstacles at the end, while the other is filled with obstacles at the beginning but smooth at the end. He starts warning passers-by, saying: “You see this road that starts out smoothly? You can be sure that a little further down, it will be filled with obstacles.” He then gives them some advice: “You see this road filled with obstacles at the outset? You can be sure that a little further down, it will be smooth.”
The Tzaddikim Finish by Rejoicing
Likewise Moshe told the Children of Israel, “See the wicked who succeed in this world? You can be sure that they will succeed only for a short while, and in the end they will lose out. See the righteous who experience misfortune in this world? You can be sure that they will end up rejoicing.”
The Sages also compare the situation to a sick person who goes to a doctor. The doctor says to him, “Don’t eat cold things or sleep in a damp place.” Another doctor warns him even more sternly: “Don’t eat cold things or sleep in a damp place, so as not to die like so-and-so died” (Torat Kohanim 16:3).
Here too, Moshe told the Children of Israel: “Do not act improperly as your fathers did, when they protested against G-d, for if you act in this way and fail to accept His mitzvot with joy, you will have no right to enter Eretz Israel, and you will die in the desert.” This is why Moshe said, “See.” It was so the Children of Israel could see the deeds of their fathers and learn from what happened to them. Why did he say all this? It was so they would not emulate their fathers in any way.