Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, Shmuel Yosef ben Reuven, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, and the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, Moshe ben Itta Golda, Yocheved Dafneh bat Dinah Zehavah, Reuven Shmuel ben Leah, Dovid Shmuel ben Chasiyah and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The Torah is an incredibly rich work of interwoven thoughts and ideas. While this is true in general, I believe it is a particularly the case regarding Sefer Devarim. Our parasha contains a telling example of this interconnectedness in the four pasukim juxtaposed to the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon:
Heshamer lecha pen tishkach et Hashem Elokecha — Be careful that you do not forget G-d your L-rd — not keeping His commandments, decrees, and laws, which I am prescribing to you today. You may then eat and be satisfied, building fine houses, and living in them. Your herds and flocks may increase, and you may amass much silver and gold — everything you own may increase. V’rahm l’vavecha v’shachachta et Hashem Elokecha — But your heart may then grow haughty, and you may forget G-d your L-rd — the One who brought you out of the slave house that was Egypt. (Sefer Devarim 8:11-14, translation, The Living Torah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zatzal)
This passage presents us with a key exegetical question, namely, what is the nature of the phrase, “v’rahm l’vavecha v’shachachta et Hashem Elokecha?” Is it a straightforward description of a possible, or even probable, result of Hashem bestowing His largesse upon us, or is it something more? We are fortunate that the Babylonian sage, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, addresses this question in Talmud Bavli, Sotah 5a:
From where [in the Torah] do we find the azhara — warning against arrogant behavior?... Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said, “From here: ‘v’rahm l’vavecha v’shachachta.’” Moreover, it is written [before v’rahm l’vavecha]: “Heshamer lecha pen tishkach et Hashem Elokecha — Be careful that you do not forget G-d your L-rd.” [We must interpret this expression] in accordance with Rabbi Elai, for Rabbi Abin said in the name of Rabbi Elai: “Every instance wherein the Torah states ‘heshamer, pen and al’ must always be interpreted as a negative Torah prohibition.” (Translation and brackets my own)
A careful reading of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s statement in conjunction with his advocacy of Rav Elai’s position yields the following conclusion: Since v’rahm l’vavecha v’shachachta et Hashem Elokecha is preceded by heshamer lecha pen tishkach et Hashem Elokecha, the phrase, “but your heart may then grow haughty,” is, in reality, a mitzvat lo ta’aseh — a negative prohibition of the Torah. As such, v’rahm l’vavecha is far more than a narration of the potential outcome of our becoming wealthy; rather, it is a lav — an action forbidden by the Torah.
We are now in a strong position to understand Chazal’s powerful denunciation of this negative behavioral attribute:
R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: “Every man in whom there is haughtiness of spirit is as though ovede avodat kokavim — he worships idols...” R. Johanan himself said: “He is as though kafar b’ikar — he has denied the fundamental principle [of Hashem’s very existence]…” R. Hama b. Hanina said: “He is as though he has broken all the laws of forbidden intimacy...” ‘Ulla said: “He is as though he has erected an idolatrous altar.” (Talmud Bavli Sotah 4b, translation with my emendations, The Soncino Talmud)
In his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam zatzal (Maimonides, 1135-1204) follows Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s view in his discussion of behavioral and halachic issues surrounding v’rahm l’vavecha:
There are behavioral traits regarding which a man is forbidden to follow the middle path. He should move away from one extreme and adopt the other. Among these is arrogance.... Our Sages directed: “Hold oneself very, very lowly.” Also, they declared: “Whoever is arrogant is as if he denied G-d’s presence, as it states in the Torah: “And your heart will be haughty and you will forget G-d, your L-rd.” Furthermore, they said: “Whoever is arrogant should be placed under a ban of ostracism. This applies even if he is only somewhat arrogant.” (Hilchot De’ot, II, 3, translation, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger with my emendations)
Beyond a doubt, we should reject the behaviors associated with the prohibition of v’rahm l’vavecha and, as the Rambam says, “move away from one extreme and adopt the other,” that is, anavah — humility. We are fortunate that the Ramban zatzal (Nachmanides, 1194-1270), in his celebrated Iggeret HaRamban, gives us ready guidance as to how to undertake this process:
Therefore, I will now explain to you how to always behave humbly. Speak gently at all times… with your heart focusing on Hashem… In all your actions, words and thoughts, always regard yourself as standing before Hashem, with His Schechinah [Divine Presence] above you, for His glory fills the whole world. Speak with fear and awe, as a servant standing before his master. Act with restraint in front of everyone. When someone calls you, don’t answer loudly, but gently and softly, as one who stands before his master. (Translation, with my emendations, http://www.pirchei.com/specials/ramban/ramban.htm, brackets and italics my own)
Two salient points emerge in this section of the Iggeret HaRamban that can guide us in our efforts to acquire anavah: Our encounters with others should reflect respect, and our minds and hearts should be focused upon Hashem with the conscious recognition that we ever stand before His Divine Presence. With the Almighty’s help and our fervent desire, as we follow the Ramban’s guidance and act with anavah, may we simultaneously fulfill the verse, “And you shall do what is proper and good in the eyes of the L-rd” (Sefer Devarim 6:18). V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom, and may Hashem in His great mercy remove the magafah from klal Yisrael and from all the nations of the world. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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