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HaShem to ChaZa"L: You take this one

Our sages have a lot to say to us about the carrying out of mitzvot. But G-d via the Torah, Written and Oral, essentially calls the shots.
By Phil Chernofsky
First Publish: 8/17/2012, 2:42 PM

Torah Tidbits
Torah Tidbits

In more complete English, G-d to the Sages. There are times - many times - when G-d is very specific with a command. You shall not wear shaatnez, wool and linen together. Not much maneuvering space on that one. In sukkot you shall dwell seven days. What's a sukka? Rambam says that G-d told Moshe Rabeinu exactly what a sukka is.

Yes, of course, our Sages have a lot to say to us about the carrying out of mitzvot and setting guidelines for both positive commands and prohibitions. But G-d - via the Torah, Written and Oral - essentially "calls the shots".

Once in a while, we find an area of mitzva that G-d is seemingly vague and cryptic about (stress the word SEEMINGLY), and it falls to our Sages (often referred to as ChaZa"L - Chachameinu Zichronam Livracha, our sages of blessed memory) to set down the principles, as well as the guidelines.

For example, t'fila - prayer.

Rambam states that there is a Mitzvat Asei, a positive command from the Torah, to pray to G-d daily. He counts the mitzva from this week's sedra of Eikev, with the words: And you shall serve Him with all your hearts. Different from most other mitzvot that have specific text in the Torah, in the case of PRAYER, Rambam adds a clarifying note: And what is service of G-d with one's heart? It is prayer.

It does not say in the Torah: You shall pray. It says, you shall serve Him with your heart, which we are taught (by ChaZa"L) means prayer.
Rambam holds that the mitzva to pray is one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. Ramban disagrees. Ramban says that PRAYER is a Rabbinic command - inspired by the Torah's words to serve G-d with your heart; inspired by the accounts in Torah and the rest of Tanach of our ancestors' prayer. He says that T'FILA is a Rabbinic command that our Sages understood was what G-d wanted us to do - even without being directly commanded.

Even from the Rambam's perspective, the Torah only commands a primitive, elemental prayer - once a day, any time, any words. The whole structure of prayer - the three times a day, the timing, the texts... - all Rabbinic.

It's as if G-d said to the Jewish People - there are some things I don't have to tell you, I don't have to spell out. Pay attention and you handle this mitzva. You should be perceptive enough to understand the value of prayer.

Related to prayer is the concept and world of b'rachot. Also in Eikev, G-d commands us to bless Him after a full, satisfying meal. Our Sages take that command and understand the value of blessing G-d after less than a full meal. They understand the value of blessing G-d before partaking of food. They understand the value of saying b'rachot for other situations, as well. For smells, sights, mitzvot, and in the context of our daily prayers.

We have sources that tell us how proud, so to speak, G-d is of His children, the Jewish People - specifically, for how ChaZa"L "carried the ball" on the topic of b'rachot. The Torah tells us to say thank you after a satisfying meal; WE realize the benefit, to correctness, in thanking Him for a sip of water. For a pleasurable fragrance of a flower. For the beauty of a rainbow. For the awe-inspiring storm with thunder and lightning. We focus on a mitzva and show that we appreciate the Source of the mitzvot and the value to us of the mitzvot, by making a bracha right before performance of many of the mitzvot.

And for all of that, G-d smiles (so to speak) on us and is pleased (again, so to speak).

Before we encounter the 170 mitzvot contained in the three upcoming sedras of R'ei, Sho-f'tim, and Ki Teitzei, we find in Eikev two very significant areas of mitzvot, of Jewish practice, which our Sages wisely and divinely guided, "took the lead" for.
There is truly a partnership between G-d and His people, who don't just sit still and comply with His commands (may that be so), but who are proactive in shaping the Torah way of life that we must commit to and live throughout our lives and for all generations.

To hear an audio Dvar Torah for this week's Torah portion of Parshat R'ei from Phil Chernofsky, click here.

Phil Chernofsky is the educational director of the Orthodox Union's OU Israel Center in Jerusalem and editor of the Torah Tidbits parsha pamphlet. Since 1998, he has hosted Torah Tidbits Audio, a shiur on the weekly parsha with witty insights. It airs every Thursday from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Israel time and is downloadable as a podcast on Israel National Radio. For podcast archives click here.