In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we read about God’s commandment that a person should be “tamim” with God. But what does that mean and how is the obligation satisfied? There are a number of views on the meaning of the word tamim and how to fulfill this obligation.
Onkelos translates the verse as requiring a person to be wholeheartedly in fear of God. This interpretation is somewhat of an outlier among the traditional Bible commentators. I can’t help but wonder if this is what Onkelos actually intends to say. Fear is, generally, a poor motivator. It is usually best employed as a temporary means of stopping a person from doing something wrong. The effect typically quickly wears off. Is it any wonder that the Torah also speaks of the obligation to love God? Love is an extremely powerful motivator that is sustainable. Yet “yirah” is also mentioned. It is sometimes translated as fear, but a better translation is awe. The root of the word yirah is “rieh,” meaning to see. The Rambam explains a person must reflect and come to realize (i.e., see) how small he is in relation to the Creator of the universe. This humbling experience is the essence of yirat Hashem (being in awe of God). The Rambam explains that love of God results from a deeper understanding of these matters. Contemplating God’s wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciating God’s infinite wisdom generates an intense desire to know and love God.
The Ramban posits being tamim means having simple, innocent and absolute faith in God, because everything is in God’s hands. He also explains that Onkelos doesn’t mean actual fear. Rather, it is a deficiency in awe (b’yirato) of God. Tamim means whole and perfect, without blemish or other deficiency.
The Rambam has another approach. He challenges the person to examine and know that the proscribed practices for predicting the future just don’t work. They are pure nonsense and only a fool would believe in their efficacy. The only reasonable conclusion is to rely on God and thereby be perfect with God.
The Chizkuni explains tamim as meaning to have complete faith in God alone and not together with some other power. He cites the example of the Cuthites, who were transplanted by the Assyrians to live in Israel. Faced with the problem of how to deal with the mountain lions that harassed them in their new home, they adopted the indigenous Jewish religion as a counter-measure. Hence, they were referred to as the lion converts. However, they never gave up their prior pagan practices and did not have complete faith in God alone.
The Ohr HaChaim interprets tamim as being wholly trusting in God, which invites hashgacha pratit (Divine providence). He cites, for example, that Abraham was originally destined to be childless. Yet, he was tamim and God intervened to alter his fate so that he had children.
The Midrash Tehillim provides another insight into the quality of being tamim. It notes the Torah commands us not to eat the chelev fat of an animal and it is inappropriate to ask why. Similarly, it is wrong to ask what reward is there in allowing a newly planted vineyard to lie fallow for three years, as required by the mitzvah of orlah. In essence, a person who is tamim just does the mitzvot and doesn’t complain.
The Pele Yoetz describes a tamim as a person who is not anxious about the future and trusts in God. He has the quiet confidence of a saint. He suggests not seeking to know what is in a friend’s heart, deceiving others to obtain money, or fretting about world affairs or earning enough income. Anxiety is not a useful emotion. Being anxious about something does not serve to advance an agenda. Indeed, it is often a debilitating condition.
Consider that Jacob was called an “ish tam.” He certainly was not the simpleton referred to in the four sons of the Passover Haggadah. What then is the meaning of the term “Tam” and, by extension, the quality of being “tamim”?
The term tam is used to distinguish Jacob from his brother Esau. Esau was a hunter who was expert in the art of deception. As the Ibn Ezra notes, this is the way a predator catches prey. As Rashi points out, Jacob, on the other hand, was not well-practiced in artifice; he was a plain-spoken individual who said what was in his heart. A person who is not disingenuous is called a tam.
Yet, Jacob was by no means a pushover. Jacob was a complete person. He was a Torah scholar, astute businessman and capable warrior. In modern parlance, he was the whole package. When Eliphaz stole everything from him and, figuratively, left him for dead, he didn’t complain. He pulled himself up by the bootstraps and went on. There was no anxiety when he worked seven years for Rachel. When Lavan cheated him, he didn’t give up. He worked another seven years. However, no fool, this time he insisted on marrying Rachel first. He then worked another seven years to achieve wealth.
Jacob overcame every challenge Lavan threw his way. Despite Lavan changing his compensation formula numerous times, he achieved genuine wealth. Lavan wanted Jacob to fail but Jacob didn’t let this daunt him. He combined the goodness of Abraham with the strength of Isaac. He was a complete man.
In this light, we can better understand Rashi’s explanation of tamim as meaning to walk before God complete. A person must trust in God and not attempt to investigate the future. Instead he should accept it wholeheartedly.
In a sense, it is about mindfulness and being in the moment. Anxiety serves no useful purpose. Jacob didn’t worry about Lavan’s machinations. He concentrated on building a family and his fortune and taking them all home with him.
I am reminded of what Curley, the grizzly old cowboy in the movie “City Slickers,” said to Billy Crystal’s character when asked what was the secret of life. He pointed one finger up and answered just one thing. What an amazing insight into human nature. Just focuse on one thing at a time and there is no room for anxiety. There’s just the present and what the person is doing in the moment.
The Talmud states if you do something wholeheartedly, then God will help you succeed. It is truly one of the secrets of life. Be complete and wholehearted (tamim tihiyu) with God.
As we begin Chodesh Elul and embark on the period of the Yomim Noraim, the lesson of tamim tihiyu is cogent. Let’s be mindful of our responsibilities today and what we should be doing now. Whether it is attending minyan or a shiur, earning a living or being home with a spouse and the kids and seeing to their needs, there is little time to waste, let alone for anxiety and complaining. Our charge is tamim tihiyu—to do the mitzvot wholeheartedly and with joy. May we all be granted a wonderful new year, with health, happiness, success and all the best life has to offer.
By Len Grunstein
Leonard Grunstein has successfully represented a number of prominent clients over the years, including a number of banks and other institutional lenders. He also founded a federal savings bank and then a national bank, where he served as chairman for a number of years. He was also the chairman of Israel Discount Bank of New York. Mr. Grunstein has published a number of significant articles in The Banking Law Journal, The Real Estate Finance Journal, the Small Business Journal and the New York Law Journal, as well as op-eds on various topics in Crain’s and other fine publications.