Rabbi Mayer Twersky
R' Yoshiya says: Do not read the word as "matzos" but rather as "mitzvos". Just as people do not allow the matzos to become leavened, so should they not allow the commandments to become leavened. Rather if [the opportunity to fulfill a commandment] comes to your hand, do it immediately. (1)
The hermeneutical method of "do not read" (al tikrei) is most puzzling, even disquieting. Chazal are seemingly altering the text, or, minimally, the vocalization. How is this possible?
Careful consideration of the example cited above suggests one possible approach (2). Let us reflect upon the peshuto shel mikra. The pasuk mandates guarding the matzos, i.e., actively preventing them from becoming leavened. This necessitates that the baking process be carried out with zeal and alacrity. Any laxity or procrastination could result in the baking of chometz rather than matzo.
R' Yoshiya's comment may thus be paraphrased and amplified as follows. The mode in which matzo is baked is paradigmatic; all mitzvos should be pursued with zeal and alacrity.
In other words, the method of al tikrei simply makes explicit what is already implicit in the simple traditional reading of the text. Viewed from this perspective, the method of al tikrei actually provides penetrating insight into the peshuto shel mikra. This insight is corroborated by the homophonic kinship between the simple reading and its al tikerei variant.
The Gemora in Maseches Menachos provides another illustration of the method of al tikrei being applied in this manner.
R' Meir used to say, a person is obligated to recite one hundred blessings daily, as it is written "And now Yisroel what (ma) does HaShem your God ask of you only to fear him (3).
The obvious difficulty is that the pasuk cited by R' Meir does not seem to support his statement. Rashi ad locum resolves this difficulty by suggesting that the word "what" (ma) should be read as "hundred" (me'ah), thus generating the declarative statement "One hundred [blessings] HaShem your God asks of you". In other words, R' Meir is applying the hermeneutical method of al tikrei.
In this instance the explanation proceeds as follows. The pasuk cited by R' Meir is problematic. How can the Torah downplay yiras shomayim and the difficulty involved in its attainment by saying that HaShem asks only for this one thing. Clearly then the Torah is instructing us that yiras shomayim is something natural, even instinctive. This is the thrust of the Rama's first gloss in Shulchan Aruch. If only a person will be forever mindful of Hakadosh Barush Hu, "immediately he will attain fear [of heaven]" (4).
The Torah hints at this by characterizing yiras shomayim as something easily attainable provided, of course, we do not allow ourselves to be distracted from "Shivisi Hashem L'negdi tamid" ("I have placed God always before me"). (5)
How do we counter our tendency to be distracted and forget that we are always in the presence of HaShem? The Rambam explains that one method Chazal employed was obligating us to recite many berachos "in order that we should constantly remember HaShem" (6).
In other words, the pasuk "And now Yisroel" hints to us that yiras shomayim is natural and thus easily attained if only we will be forever mindful of HaShem's presence. One way in which this mindfulness is encouraged is by the recitation of myriad berachos which inter alia encourages us to recognize the reflections of His presence and handiwork in the natural world. And thus R' Meir's al tikrei which proclaims the obligation to recite berachos simply brings to the fore what is implicit in the pasuk. Yiras Shomayim is easily attained and naturally experienced if only we live mindfully, not mindlessly.
1. Rashi to Shemos 12:17, quoting Mechilta
2. Careful study is required to determine if this approach is adequate for all examples of al tikrei.
3. Menachos 43b
4. Rama Orach Chayim 1:1 quoting Rambam
5. Tehilim 16
6. Hilchos Berachos 1:3