Parashat Va’etchanan / Taking the Pledge

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Summer (Ruth and Boaz)' from "The Four Seasons," by Nicolas Poussin (1660-64).Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yakov Z. Meyer

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), one finds the familiar passage recited daily in the Shema Israel (Hear O Israel) confession of faith, as part of which Jews are commanded to have “these words, which I command thee this day, … upon thy heart” (Deut. 6:6). In the following midrash, this commandment serves as the introduction to a description of the drama these words generate within a person’s own private, inner space.

“It is written, ‘upon thy heart,’ thus Rabbi Josiah says: We must all take an oath in which the name of God is uttered in order to force our yetzer hara [evil impulse] to act in accordance with our wishes. Indeed, one finds everywhere in the Bible examples of righteous individuals who do this. Abraham proclaims, ‘I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord’ [Genesis 14:22], and Boaz says, ‘as the Lord liveth, lie down until the morning” [Ruth 3:13]. David declares, ‘As the Lord liveth, nay, but the Lord shall smite him’ [1 Samuel 26:10]. And Elisha says, ‘As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none’ [2 Kings 5:16].

“Just as the righteous take an oath so as to prevent their evil side from acting, the wicked utter an oath so to enable it to act, as it is written, ‘As the Lord liveth, I will surely run after him, and take somewhat of him” [2 Kings 5:20]’” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 33).

In his article “The Torah and the Source of the Evil Impulse, According to the School of Rabbi Ishmael,” scholar Ishay Rosen-Zvi uses this midrash inter alia to sketch a picture of the anthropology of the Talmud. In the midrashim of the school of Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Josiah’s teacher, the evil element in an individual is portrayed as an independent demonic entity that is distinct from the person within whom it resides, writes Rosen-Zvi. The evil impulse also has an antinomian aspect, wherein the individual is tempted by it to violate the Torah’s commandments, although he has undertaken a religious commitment to fight and defeat the evil.

How can people deal with this internal entity, which seeks to lead them away from the righteous path? The solution offered by the above midrash is the device of an oath, as part of which the name of God is uttered to force our evil side to act as we see fit.

The midrash presents five biblical figures who undertake an oath aimed at controlling their evil side: specifically, four righteous individuals who use it to withstand temptation, and one wicked person who uses it to give in to temptation.

After Abraham defeats the kings and frees his nephew Lot, whom the rulers had taken prisoner, the king of Sodom invites the patriarch to take the plunder that is rightfully his. Abraham (Abram) replies: “And Abram said to the king of Sodom: ‘I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say: I have made Abram rich’” (Gen. 14:22-23).

Although he could have taken the booty, he refuses. In a literal reading of this incident, the purpose of the oath is to express Abraham’s position vis-à-vis the king of Sodom. However, Rabbi Josiah sees the use of the oath as a private, inner tactic for Abraham to combat the evil side of his nature. While his evil impulse presses him to take the goods, Abraham utters the name of God, in effect administering an oath aimed at overcoming that impulse.

When Ruth comes to Boaz at night, sleeping at his feet and asking him to be her redeemer despite the fact that she has another one who is closer to her, Boaz tells her: “Tarry this night, and it shall be in the morning, that if he will perform unto thee the part of a kinsman, well; let him do the kinsman’s part; but if he be not willing to do the part of a kinsman to thee, then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as the Lord liveth; lie down until the morning” (Ruth 3:13).

In a literal interpretation, it is unclear whether Boaz has intercourse with Ruth that night. Moreover, in such a reading, the use of the name of God in Boaz’s oath refers back to the beginning of the verse: If the other kinsman will not redeem Ruth, “then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as the Lord liveth.” However, in this midrash, the oath relates to the latter part of the verse – “as the Lord liveth, lie down until the morning” – so its purpose is to subdue Boaz’s evil inclinations so that he will not be intimate with Ruth.

The same dynamic appears in the verse referring to David. When he finds himself in a situation where he can kill Saul, who has been pursuing him relentlessly, David states, “As the Lord liveth, nay, but the Lord shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall go down into battle, and be swept away” (1 Sam. 26:10). According to the midrash, the oath’s purpose is to prevent him from submitting to the temptation to take revenge against his arch-enemy, as expressed in the next verse: “The Lord forbid it me, that I should put forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed.”

When Elisha cures Naaman, he refuses to take any gift from him as reward, administering instead an oath that will restrict evil proclivities, according to the midrash: “As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none” (2 Kgs. 5:16).

The common denominator in these four incidents is that the individual in question is in a situation where his evil impulse seeks to provoke him to commit an act that, while being unworthy, is not actually forbidden, and where the oath is the device used to subdue the impulse.

In contrast with these four righteous individuals, Rabbi Josiah points to Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, who in essence uses the oath to enlist his evil side in an act that represents a deviation from the path of righteousness. In so doing, he hopes to take for himself the money Naaman proposes as a reward for being healed from leprosy, but in the end, as the Bible soon informs the reader, Gehazi himself is stricken with leprosy as punishment.

The anthropological picture of the inner space of one’s personality, which allows freedom of choice, is clear. But what is the meaning of the midrash’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:6? What leads Rabbi Josiah to interpret the words, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart” as a directive to undertake an oath involving mention of the Almighty’s name in order to subdue our evil urges?

The midrash’s dynamics are clear if one reads the context correctly. A previous midrash on the verse states the following: “Rabi says: From the words, ‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God’ [Deut. 6:5], I do not know how to worship and love God. However, the Torah tells us, ‘And these words … shall be [upon thy heart]’ [6:6]. We can therefore understand that we must place these words on our heart so that we can then know the nature of God who created the universe with the power of his words, and so that we can obey his commandments’” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 33).

Rabbi Josiah seeks to interpret the comments of his contemporary: How do we place these words in our heart, and how does that action lead us to know God and his ways more intimately?

Rabbi Josiah interprets this verse in an almost literal sense: We should allow God to enter our inner space. By uttering his holy name, we are recruiting him to guide us in our actions and to help us triumph over our evil side. God thus becomes a partner in our moral and ethical decisions.

Citing the examples of the five biblical figures, Rabbi Josiah demonstrates to Rabi how, in practical terms, we can enable God to enter our heart. Moreover, we must realize that in using the device of the oath, we should follow not the example of the wicked Gehazi, but rather that of the four righteous individuals.