THE ACCEPTANCE OF THE TORAH AND THE UNIQUENESS OF THE JEWS
(Adapted from the Shavuot volume of Pachad Yitzchak, by Rav Yitzchak Hutner)
At the end of parashat Ki-Tavo (Devarim 29:8), Moshe concludes his exhortation to the Jews to keep the Torah by stating "And you should keep the words of this covenant and you should do them (va'asitem otam), so that you should succeed in all that you undertake." The Sages note that the word 'them' (otam) is written with a letter missing (atem) so that it can be read as saying "and you should make yourselves." They thus learn out that one who keeps the mitzvot and the words of the covenant is considered by Hashem, as if he made himself. The question is, why do the Sages not pick up on other places in the Torah where a missing letter could lead to such an interpretation?
In order to understand this issue, we must explain the concept of the acceptance of the mitzvot by the Jews. Although, on the surface, it appears that the Jews received 613 mitzvot in the same way that Bnei Noach (i.e. everyone else) received seven mitzvot, there is a qualitative difference between the two. The mitzvot given to the Bnei Noach were given simply as commandments, and their obligation to keep them stems from their being commandments. By contrast, when speaking about the obligations of Jews to keep the mitzvot, we are speaking about the concept of the Jews having accepted those mitzvot upon themselves.
[This idea could perhaps explain an interesting law about administering the death penalty. Bnei Noach are killed for violating any of their seven commandments, and they are killed whether or not they were warned before the violation occurred. By contrast, a Jew cannot be punished if he was not first warned, and even once warned there are different punishments for different breaches of the law. If all that a Ben Noach has is a simple direct commandment, then there is nothing more to talk about – breaking the law leads directly to punishment. However, Jews, who have accepted upon themselves not only the law, but everything that comes along with the black-on-white strictures, have to be warned and have to consciously accept their status as a denier of the law in order to offset their status as one who has accepted the law.]
This idea of the commandments being based on their being accepted can be best explained through the comments ofRabbeinu Yonah (Sha'arei Teshuva, 2:3). He writes that when wise people pay attention to rebuke and bend themselves to repent, they move at that moment from darkness to great light. For when a person listens and understands and returns to Hashem and accepts the words of the one rebuking him and accepts upon himself to do all that is required of him, he has truly repented and becomes a new man. Once he undergoes this process, he acquires for his soul the merit of all of the mitzvot. This can be seen from the verses concerning the korban Pesach, where the Torah tells us that the Jews listened to Moshe and then went and followed his orders. Even though Moshe gave the commandment to bring the korban Pesach on the first day of Nissan, and it was not done until the fourteenth of the month, nevertheless it was considered as if they did it as soon as they accepted upon themselves to do it. As it is written in Avot D'Rabi Natan, anyone whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom will last. Anyone who accepts upon himself with a full heart to keep all of the words of the Torah already is credited for having kept all of them. Just as the Jews at Sinai first said "we shall do," and only afterwards said "we shall listen," so too is the commitment to observe the commandments a priority for us, and must precede our acquisition of wisdom.
What emerges from the words of Rabbeinu Yonah is that it is inconceivable that a person's Torah wisdom can last if he fails to first accept upon himself all of the actions that serve to bolster the Torah. As such, the seven mitzvot given to the Bnei Noach do not require acceptance, since there was no Torah given along with them. They were given basic orders as to how to construct a livable society, but they were not given richness of the Torah to accompany those laws (as the Sages tell us, "You may believe that there is wisdom among the nations; you may not believe that there is Torah among them."). By contrast, the giving of the commandments to the Jews is included in the giving of the Torah as a whole, and it is impossible for someone to relate to the wisdom of the Torah without having in his possession the multitudes of actions that are commanded within.
Furthermore, merely by accepting upon himself to follow the mitzvot, a person is judged as if he has already performed them.
We have now arrived at the key point in understanding the connection between the giving of the Torah and the giving of the mitzvot to the Jews. Without the giving of the mitzvot there could be no giving of the Torah, since the wisdom of the latter depends on the performance of the former. On the other hand, only by being sanctified through the Torah did the Jews become worthy to receive all of the commandments. It appears obvious that the fact that we can consider intention as tantamount to action flows from the premise that the Jews and the Torah are considered to be one organic unit. Only because the Jews are considered to be one with the Torah can the Torah say that they brought the korban Pesach when, in fact, they had merely agreed to do it. Bnei Noach lack this unity with their commandments, and thus their intention is worthless until it is actualized in the form of the performance of the commandments.
To go even further, the fact that the Jews and the Torah are seen as one is why we can refer to the Torah and the mitzvot as a "brit," a covenant. In a true covenant, both sides commit themselves to something. Mere commanding does not constitute a covenant, and thus the mitzvot received by the Bnei Noach meant that they had been commanded, but they had no entered into any form of covenant with Hashem. However, by accepting upon themselves the entire Torah, the very commandments themselves were elevated from being mere legal strictures to being an element in a covenant.
For this reason, the Sages see fit to make their comments specifically at the end of Ki-Tavo. That entire parasha concerns itself with the final expression of the covenant found in the Torah, and thus it is there that the Sages state that one who keeps the Torah is considered as if he made himself. By keeping the covenant, the Jews are considered not only to have kept the Torah, but by extension to have made themselves, who are one with the Torah. The mitzvot are not external to the Jews, but rather define their character. By keeping the Torah and by securing its place in the world, the Jews establish themselves and their place in the world as well.
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