December 6, 2003
The last verse of the haftarah was probably meant to be the conclusion to the prophet Hosea’s message: “He who is wise will consider these words; He who is prudent will take note of them. For the paths of the Lord are smooth; The righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them.” (Hosea 14:10) In other words, those who heed my (Hosea’s) message to return to God and serve Him with integrity will merit to travel the “path of the Lord – darche haShem”; those who do not will stumble on that path.
Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation (interpretation) of the prophets, interprets this verse differently. He interprets “darche HaShem to mean “the ways of Torah” and the consequences to be the reward or punishment in the world to come: “He who is wise, the one who discerns what is right and understands and truth of God’s ways. The righteous who follows it will live in the word to come and the wicked will be given over to the nether world for not following them.”
Rabbi David Kimchi, the 12th century Provencal commentator, interprets “darche HaShem” to mean “ways of the Lord”, .namely, that God’s providential ways in the world are just and that each person will be judged according to their actions. A person endowed with this wisdom will behave accordingly.
The following Talmudic passage (Nazir 23a) adopts the idea that “darche HaShem” refers to Torah or mitzvot but removes the significance of this verse from its original contexts entirely: Rabbah bar bar Channah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “What is the meaning of the verse: ‘For the paths of the Lord are smooth, the righteous walk in them, but the wicked stumble in them’?” [This can be understood by means of a] parable about two people who roasted their Passover sacrifice [in preparation to eat it together with matzah and maror (bitter herb) on Passover night]. One ate the sacrifice with the intention of fulfilling the commandment – “l’shom mitzvah”. The other ate it gluttonously after he was already full – “achila gasah”. The one who ate it for the purposes of fulfilling the commandment exemplifies “the righteous shall walk in them; while the one who ate it gluttonously exemplifies “transgressors shall stumble in them”.
This interpretation is ultimately rejected by Resh Lakish who asserts that even the person who performs the commandment in less than an optimal way has nevertheless still performed the commandment. If this is the case, it is difficult for us to understand what about the “glutton”’s behavior would prompt Rabbi Yochanan to call him a transgressor. Rabbi Menachem Meiri, the 13th century Provencal Talmudist explained the difference between the two figures in Rabbi Yochanan’s parable. He asserts that the righteous person, in the parable, performed the commandment entirely out of service to God (lshma), while the wicked person performed the commandment out of habit or solely for his/her own benefit. Rabbi Isaac Abrabenel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and commentator put it this way: “the divine commandments require positive intention (kavanah) for without it they have no significance since they are not like other good deeds that have merit in and of themselves. Rather all of their significance flows from the fact that they are the fulfillment of God’s will.
While the Talmud ultimately rejects this approach, it is certainly worth our religious consideration.*
*Even though this view is rejected, when eating the afikomen at the end of the seder, one should still take care not to eat it in a gluttonous way, namely, when one is so full that it cannot be eaten with savor. (see Shulchan Aruch O.H. 476:1 – Magen Avraham)
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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