Ekev – For Your Safety and Comfort

“And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. To observe the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you this day, to benefit you.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)

What does God ask of us? The verses give us very broad instructions, which cover basically all of the Torah’s commandments including loving and fearing God. And why should we do all that? The final phrase of the verses cited above tell us that this is for our benefit. “To benefit you.”

We’ve heard this so many times. “Its for your own good.” Or, the choice phrase of official bureaucracies – “this is for your safety.” An article on local media last week wrote about parking wardens targeting cars of parents dropping their kids off in front of their Nelson school. When the parents complained they were told by the council that this was being done “for your safety.”

Well, I don’t feel safer after being slapped with a $40 fine. Waiting at the back of an orderly queue I have a nagging feeling that I’m not waiting “for my own good.” And turning off my cellphone when the airplane door is shut most certainly does not enhance “my own comfort.” Of course, we understand that there are certain procedures established to maintain order for the benefit of the wider public, of which I am a part. But it irks me that we have come to use these phrases as a fallback for any procedural rule to shut any complaints or protests. The verse here similarly tells us that we should be observant “for our own good.” Walking in the ways of God will benefit us. How is this different from all the other rules and procedures which are “for our own good?”

Rabbi Josh Flug points out that a man by the name of Bill Burr wrote the password security guidelines for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Bill is to blame for the requirements of a convoluted password which includes a mix of numbers, lower case and upper case letters. He is responsible for the notice that we receive from different subscriptions demanding that we change our passwords every 90 days – to another convolutedly “strong” password. I’m sure I’m not the only one who occasionally tries to log in to a site which I don’t visit frequently and am frustrating that the password I believe to have established doesn’t work. I don’t feel safer locked out of these online services that have made our lives conveniently inconvenient. But I also understand that automated trolls and hackers present an online danger to our private information and resources. I need to secure my login details in a way that thwarts the attempts of others to access my accounts and steal what is mine. It is for my own good.

And yet, Bill Burr recently admitted that these requirements were all a mistake. They failed to provide the security they were designed to ensure. This is because we have all found convenient ways to circumvent them. Algorithms today can easily access a password-protected site by using all of our go-to deviations. Adding a capital letter to the beginning of the password usually does the trick. A number at the end, or between two words, does the trick as well.

And when we change our passwords periodically we are reasonably predictable. If our number started as 1, we leave the rest of the password as it is and change the number to 2. 90 days later we change it to 3, and so on. Our need for a password that is easy to remember drives us to find ways to circumvent the very intentions of the standards imposed. The password standards therefore fail to protect us from online dangers.

The commandments of the Torah were designed to benefit us in myriad ways. The Mitzvot are vehicles through which we develop a relationship with God, and they provide us with training to refine our character. The Mitzvot are designed to inspire us to be sensitive to all of God’s creations, fellow humans, animals, plant matter and the inanimate. Moreover, the mystics view each Mitzvah as associated with one of our body parts. There are 248 positive commandments in the Torah, and the Talmud asserts that there are a parallel number of bones in our bodies. (Medical anatomy may have a slightly different count, but a similar number can be reached by changing how we classify a bone – in any event we should not allow differing calculations to exclude the idea.) There are 365 negative commandments corresponding to a similar number of a sinews and tissues in our bodies. A Mitzvah observed properly strengthens and completes a particular part of our self in the spiritual dimensions. The violation of a Mitzvah does harm to its corresponding organ. When the Torah states that these commandments are “for our good” it can be taken quite literally.

Nevertheless, we have found ways to circumvent the purpose of the Mitzvot, no different than our successful circumvention of the security features of password requirements. We  fall into habit, allowing the observance to become rote. We miss out on many of the great advantages Mitzvot were designed to provide. Amazon, TradeMe, our bank, they all require certain standards in the passwords we create. But they don’t ask this for their own benefit, they demand it so that we won’t have the headache that comes from identity theft or other fraudulent use of our credentials. It is fair to say it is legitimately “for our safety.” The Mitzvot as well must be seen in this light. L’tov lach, to benefit you, is the ultimate purpose of the commandments of the Torah.

#Ekev

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