Why Now?

Towards the end of this week's parsha, Moses says to the children of Israel: "You have seen all that the L-rd did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders; but the L-rd did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear, until today" (Deut. 29:3).

This seems rather strange -- after all, the the Israelites had experienced the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Torah, to name but two of the more impressive miracles -- how is it that they could only appreciate these things now, forty years later?

Rashi gives an explanation: No man appreciates fully his teacher's wisdom before forty years. So only now, finally, after the Israelites have learned Torah for forty years from Moses, are they in a position to understand it properly. Hence from now on G-d will be strict with them regarding their Torah observance.

Indeed, in Pirke Avos we read: "At forty years one reaches understanding" (5:24). Tosfos (in Sotah) actually interprets this as meaning: after forty years of education. Some of us would be very old by then! And most of us do feel that we have some kind of a grip on what is going on. So how can we explain these passages?

To get some insight into this, let us consider the prayer ("Ahava raba") we recite every morning just before the Shema. It says, in part: "Our Father, merciful Father, thou who art ever compassionate, have pity on us and inspire us to understand and discern, to perceive, learn and teach, to observe, do and fulfill gladly all the teachings of thy Torah. Enlighten our eyes in thy Torah; attach our heart to thy commandments; unite our heart to love and reverence thy name, so that we may never be put to shame" (trans. Birnbaum).

What is the point of the second sentence above? Why is it not redundant? The commentators explain: The first sentence implies merely an intellectual acceptance of Torah, while the second implies a deeper, emotional acceptance as well. It implies internalizing the Torah so that, for example, our eyes see things, and our heart feels things, from a Torah viewpoint. Such a viewpoint will become, in fact, our gut reaction.

At this time of the year, we are concerned about how we will fare on the Day of Judgment. But I think the situation here is often misrepresented. Many people imagine being judged in Heaven on a kind of point system, or imagine a scale, weighing their good deeds against their bad, which will finally be tipped one way or the other.

I believe that this is the wrong idea. My firm belief -- and there seems to be support for this idea in the writings of Reb Chaim Volozhin --is that we will be judged on one thing, and one thing only --what kind of person are we? The point is that the kind of person that we ultimately are depends on how strongly we have observed the mitzvos. It is like the situation of an athlete --the more conscientiously he has trained, the more likely he is to win his race. Ultimately, the kind of athlete he is depends on his whole history of training (or skipping training!). So it is with us. The kind of person we are depends on our whole history of internalizing the Torah and mitzvos.

This could also be a way of understanding the statement in today's parsha, in which dire things are predicted for the Jews "because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joyfulness and with gladness of heart" (Deut. 28: 47). The important thing is not simply to serve G-d, but to serve Him gladly, which we can only do to the extent that we have internalized the Torah. Only then will we have "a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear".