August 25, 2016
From the Talmud onwards the rabbis have discussed the obvious difficulty in Devarim 10:12.
Moshe says to the people, “Now, O Israel, what does Hashem your God ask of you?
Moshe immediately continues with the answer:” Only to fear Hashem, your God, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul, to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees which I command you today for your benefit.”
By using the word “only”, it appears that God is not asking much of the Jewish People. But the implication of the rest of the verse is that the people have an enormous and difficult task to fulfill. From various other Biblical and Talmudic sources this difficulty is apparent. We are reminded that man’s nature is evil from his youth and that his inclination to stray from the Divinely-ordained path is renewed and strengthened on a daily basis. Perhaps for Moshe this responsibility was but a small thing. But the same cannot be said for the rest of the nation.
Abarbanel answers that the word “only”, which implies an easy-to-fulfill requirement, refers to the first part of the verse. The verse should read as follows: “What does Hashem your God ask of you? Only to fear Hashem your God.”
God is referring to the lowest level of ‘fear’, which is the simple fear of physical harm, a type of fear that is universally experienced by man and animals alike. Standing in reverential awe before God’s miraculous omnipotence is a higher level of ‘fear’ which goes far beyond simple fear of physical punishment.
This explains why this verse immediately follows Moshe’s recounting of the story of the golden calf and the resultant deaths of those who participated. As a first step, the people are asked to do something that is not difficult: to remember the severity of the punishment that resulted from the transgression of the golden calf in order to avoid a similar transgression in the future. The rest of the verse represents the progression that an individual can follow in order to attain the highest level of attachment to God.
The next part of the verse refers to “going in all His ways”. This is the next step in the progression. It is the individual’s responsibility to avoid transgression, to stay on the straight path and not deviate either to the right or to the left. Next is the reference to the love of God, which also incorporates the higher level of fear which was mentioned previously.
Both of these types of ‘fear’ together lead to the service of God that is expressed through the observance of the commandments.
Finally, the last words of the verse are “for your benefit”. God is reiterating to the nation that God does not ‘need’ our service for His benefit. The observance of His commandments with the full dedication of our hearts and soul is intended only to enable us to fulfill our potential as human beings whose sole purpose is to attach ourselves as much as possible to the Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe.