The Little Space with Big Significance

Why say the same thing twice?  The Torah, in Parashat Re’eh, declares that a blessing will meet the person who obeys the Torah but a curse will meet the person that doesn’t.  The verse that contains a reference to the curse and describes an individual that will ignore the Torah, reads as follows:  “If you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others.”  In light of the great significance with which Rabbinic tradition views even a single letter of the Torah, this phrase seems redundant.  If a person doesn’t hearken to the commandments, then they have obviously strayed from the path.  Why is it necessary to describe a person’s falling prey to sin in any detail at all?

Every act has at least two distinct stages: premeditation and execution.  According to the Talmud, in Heaven’s eyes,  a positive or a negative action that is only envisioned and planned but never executed is always judged in our favor:  “R. Assi said: Even if one merely thinks of performing a precept but is forcibly prevented, the Torah ascribes it to him, regarding it as though he has actually performed it.  But on the other hand there is no punishment for a mere intention to do wrong, so long as it has not been implemented.”  If we planned and intended to do a good deed, but were unable to accomplish on account of circumstances beyond our control, we are nevertheless rewarded.  But if it’s a bad deed, we are not punished since we never actually committed the sin.  Based on this, writes Rabbi Mordechai Katz in his book Lilmode Ul’lamed, when the Torah seems to redundantly repeat its description of the sinner’s transgression it’s actually teaching us a moral lesson.  Having evil intentions is not going to result in the curse that the Torah warns of; there is still an opportunity to reconsider and not ultimately act upon the intentions.  Self control that is exercised in the small span of time in between an intention and its execution is the key that can ensure that negative consequences will be avoided.  The curse will only befall someone that gets caught up in their sinful impulses, desires and plans and fails to desist from bringing them to fruition.

In the words of Stephen Covey: “Quality of life depends on what happens in the space between stimulus and response” (First Things First, p. 167).  Life throws at us all kinds of challenges, temptations, and difficulties that seek to elicit a reaction or response.  We must develop a state of mind that enables us to maintain our cool in the face of even the most difficult set of circumstances.  That way we can consciously act based on wisdom and poise and not merely react based on impulse and external pressure.  The words of Victor Frankel (1905 – 1997), the Holocaust and concentration camp survivor, represent one of the ultimate demonstrations of this type of self-control:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

          And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance (Man’s Search for Meaning p. 104). 

We are often faced with impulses or situations that involve “not hearkening to the commandments of the Lord , your God.”  When we will succeed in not letting them knock us off of our mental equilibrium and emotional balance, we will then be able to succeed in not “straying from the path” and being able to live consistently with integrity and wisdom.

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