Eikev- The Three Pillars of Life in the Exile

The penultimate aliyah in our parsha contains the second parsha of Kriat Shema, והיה עם שמוע. The paragraph reminds us of the importance of keeping G-d’s מצות, and contains a very interesting warning, which I believe is very relevant for each and every one of us, whether we are currently living in the Holy Land or not:

 הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם. וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’, נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

Be careful lest your heart be seduced and you turn aside and serve other gods. Then G-d’s anger will burn against you, and He will stop the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground will yield no produce, and you will quickly lose the good land that G-d gave you. (דברים יא:טז-יז)

This grim warning, reminding us to follow G-d’s commands or else we will lose everything, is followed by reminders to wear tefilin (“וקשרתים אתם לאות על ידכם”) , educate our children in Judaism (“ולמדתם אתם את בניכם לדבר בם”), and put up mezuzot in our houses (“וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך ובשעריך”). What could be the connection between the warning of losing track of our priorities and the commandments of תפילין and מזוזות?

Sifrei answers that we can learn from ואבדתם מהרה of the importance of keeping the מצות and living a תורה lifestyle even after G-d exiles us from Israel, through a משל. A powerful king once became angry at his wife, so she returned to her father’s home, very discouraged. As she left, the king reminded her; don’t forget to continue to wear your jewlery, so that when you return to the palace, they will not be new on you. The נמשל is a little obvious- G-d is the king and we, His chosen people, are the queen. When G-d sent us into exile almost two thousand years ago, He didn’t outright reject us- He left us with our מצות (our jewelry) to help us stay on the right path, so that once the time is right to come back, we will be ready to pick up where we left off- being true עובדי השם. This explains why the warning against losing track of G-d’s will is juxtaposed to some of the most basic commandments in our nation (tefilin, chinuch, mezuza)- to remind us that even as we are in a state of ואבדתם מהרה מעל הארץ הזאת, we should continue to וקשרתם אתם and ולמדתם אתם, וכתבתם מעל מזוזות ביתך, because if we get caught up in the אלהים אחרים of our גלות, and are משתחוה to them, then we can never fulfill the last passuk of this section of shema:

לְמַעַן יִרְבּוּ יְמֵיכֶם, וִימֵי בְנֵיכֶם, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לָתֵת לָהֶם–כִּימֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, עַל-הָאָרֶץ

[By doing these things], your days and the days of your children will be multiplied on this land that G-d promised to your forefathers to give to them, like the days of the heavens above the earth (eternity). (יא:כא)

Now that we’ve explained the connection between Moshe’s warning and the reminder of a few key mitzvot, it would be remiss not to question why specifically the commandments of tefilin, mezuza, and chinuch are the ones mentioned afterהשמרו לכם. These מצות, which seemingly have very little in common, are read by us at least twice a day- what is their significance?

I believe that these commandments are put together because their combined message represents exactly what we need to remember as we live in the exile waiting for the geulah. Whenever we move into a home, the first thing that we are commanded to do, even before making a housewarming party, is to put up on all doorposts a scroll, containing, you guessed it, the first two paragraphs of שמע. The message behind this is that as one experiences the שמחה of building a Jewish home so far away from the eternal Jewish home, there should be an element of loss, a small feeling that something is not entirely right, which everyone is reminded of as they walk through the home. Even as a family is starting something as new as living in a new house, the first thing that is done is a reminder of the past, of the commandments of loving G-d, following His mitzvot, and the cost if we forget. Next is the תפילין- these phylacteries, also containing these two פרשיות in addition two others, are put on nearly every morning by Jewish men over the age of 13 years. As the תפילין are put on, the following תפילה is customarily said:

וארשתיך לי לעולם, וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים, וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את ה’.‏

I commit (lit. betroth) You to me, I will commit You to me in righteousness, justice, kindness, and compassion. And I will commit You to me in faithfulness, and I shall know the Lord

One of the first things that we do in the morning, even before we say other prayers for sustenance or thanksgiving, and even before we say שמע, is to bind boxes with שמע in them onto our arms and head, to remind ourselves of the commitment that we have to G-d, as a testament to our present relationship with G-d.

Last is חינוך, one of the most crucial parts of any Jewish community, after the mikvah and shul. It ensures the continuation of our religion, our nation, and our culture, especially difficult in the galut, where we are surrounded by a culture so different from ours. Without a proper Jewish education, our nation could never continue, as our culture would’ve died away a long time ago, along with other ancient empires. As much as tefilin and mezuzah remind us of how great our past used to be, and the sad situation that we are currently in, Jewish education is the future. It represents the passing of the torch, of passing our knowledge and our customs to the next generation, one that could be the one to see the geulah that we so patiently yearn for.

These three mitzvot, representing the Jewish past, present, and future, are an integral part of Jewish survival in the exile- their consistent observance helps ensure that the Jews of the galut doesn’t get swallowed up by the foreign culture as Moshe warns in our parsha. This could explain why they specifically follow Moshe’s warning against בני ישראל straying from G-d’s path: “השמרו לכם,” Moshe warns, and if you fail and get exiled from the land, then “וקשרתם אתם… ולימדתם אתם… וכתבתם-” if you are careful on these three mitzvot, then you will be constantly reminded of their inherent message of the tragic Jewish past, lonely Jewish present, and hopeful Jewish future, and if you can internalize this message and do תשובה, then “למען ירבו ימיכם”- you will have many years to enjoy your reward, life in Eretz Yisrael and beyond.

We should all be zoche to see all of the Jewish People uniting in their service of G-d (and not אלהים אחרים), so that through this strengthened עבודת השם, we will see a new level of national unity and the coming of the גאולה very soon. Shabbat Shalom.