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Torah Attitude: Parashas Behar-Bechukosai: G'd's Formula for Peace
If we walk in the ways of G'd, we will receive tremendous rewards. If we transgress the ways of G'd, we will receive very severe punishments. The 49 curses and 98 curses reflect the destruction of our Two Temples. There is a simple formula for peace. If we fulfill three expectations we will bring all the blessings. If we do not listen to G'd, we will fall into seven deadly sins which will, G'd forbid, sever our relationship with G'd. The 49 curses represent seven times seven punishments for the seven sins. The rewards grow exponentially, rather than arithmetically, when the Jewish people keep the commandments as a group. There are only two paths at the fork in the road: one which brings us closer to G'd, and one that takes us further away. It is the first step that is crucial. G'd will bless His nation with peace.
Rewards for walking on the way of G'd
In this week's second portion, the Torah elaborates on the concept of reward and punishment. First, we are told how we will receive tremendous rewards for listening to G'd: "If you walk on the way of My decrees and keep My commandments and perform them, then I will bring your rains in their right time, the land will give its produce.. and you will dwell securely in your land. I will make peace in the land, and you will be able to lie down and no one will frighten you You will pursue your enemies; and they will fall before you by the sword. Five of you will pursue a hundred and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand" (Vayikra 26:3-8)
Punishments for our transgressions
If we transgress the ways of G'd, we will receive very severe punishments. As it says: "But if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments; if you consider My decrees loathsome, and if your being rejects My ordinances, so as not to perform all my commandments, so that you annul My covenant then I will do the same to you; I will assign upon you panic and you will be struck down before your enemies; those who hate you will subjugate you you will flee with no one pursuing you." (Vayikra 26:14-17).
This admonition continues for a total of 49 curses, if we do not stop our transgressions and turn around and repent. If we do not return to the path set out for us by G'd, the consequences are dreadful.
Destruction of Two Temples
We find similar passages in Devarim 28, (Parashas KiSavo) where a further 98 curses are detailed if we do not follow the commandments of the Torah. The Ramban explains that the 49 curses in this week's portion and the 98 curses in the later portion correspond to the two times that our Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from the land of Israel.
Simple formula for peace
It is beyond the scope here to explain in detail how the sins mentioned in the two portions and the various curses correspond exactly to what happened at the time of the destruction of each of the Two Temples. However, the message is very clear. If the Jewish people want to live peacefully in the land of Israel, G'd has provided a simple formula. "Follow My ways, listen to My commandments, and everything will be fine. If you do not, you have been warned about the consequences."
Three expectations bring all blessings
Rashi points out that in the very first verse of this portion, there seems to be a three-fold repetition: "(1) if you follow My Decrees", (2) "if you observe My commandments", and (3) and you perform them." He brings from our Sages that there are three corresponding expectations. They are: (1) to engage in intensive Torah study; (2) to have the intention to accept and fulfill what we are studying; and (3) to actually perform them. If we fulfill these three expectations, we will bring about all of the blessings with prosperity, security and peace without having to fight anyone. As it says (Vayikra 26:7), "they will fall before you by the sword". Rashi explains that this does not mean that we will have to kill our enemies; rather that our enemies will fall by the sword of each other, through internal strife.
The seven deadly sins
On the negative side, if we do not listen to G'd, we will eventually fall into seven sins that will, G'd forbid, sever our relationship with G'd. Our Sages enumerate these sins which begin with not engaging in intensive Torah study, one sin leading to the next. All seven sins are derived from the words of these verses: (1) you do not toil in Torah studies; this will lead you to (2) stop fulfilling the commandments. In order to justify your personal conduct, you will (3) be revolted by others who are loyal to Torah and who fulfill the commandments. This is turn leads you to (4) develop a hate for Torah Sages; which brings you to (5) stop others and influence them not to be observant. In the end, you will (6) deny that these commandments were given by G'd, and you will even (7) deny the existence of G'd.
Little steps, either way
The Torah reveals here a deep insight into human nature. Who would believe that an observant Jew could eventually develop into an atheist just because he is not toiling in Torah studies? However, this is what the Talmud (Shabbos 105b) explains about the method of the evil inclination: "Today it says do this; tomorrow it says do that; until it eventually says go and serve idols." People do not become non-observant overnight. It is a slow, gradual development. The first steps might be so minute that no one, including the transgressor, may even notice them. Similarly, to get close to G'd does not happen in one instant, but is a lifelong gradual growth. The Torah here teaches us that our most crucial decision is whether we are ready to toil in Torah study or not.
7 x 7
Rashi explains that there are 49 curses enumerated in this week's Torah portion as punishment for these sins; seven times seven curses for the seven sins. It is for sure no coincidence that we read these 49 curses during the 49 days of the period of counting the Omer when we prepare to elevate ourselves to accept the Torah. As the Zohar explains, these 49 days were given to the Jewish people after the exodus from Egypt to give them time to rid themselves from the impurity of Egyptian influence and to reach the highest level of purity to merit the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given. In general, the Torah provides instructions for a seven day period of purification, but in this case there was a need for seven times seven. We see that to reach the appropriate level to be ready to accept the Torah we need seven times seven and the punishment for not toiling in the Torah, on the other hand, is also seven times seven. It is most interesting to note that when a Jewish couple gets married they go through seven days of Sheva Brachot, literally Seven Blessings, which are recited daily at a special meal served in the couple's honour. These seven days of seven blessings help to lay the sound foundation for every Torah observant home and protect it from any of the seven times seven curses.
We find that when we follow G'd's decrees and toil in Torah study as a group the rewards grow exponentially, rather than arithmetically. Our sages observe the inaccuracy in the mathematics referred to in the Torah. If we follow the ordinances, five of us will pursue a hundred of our enemies, a ratio of 1:20, and a hundred of us will pursue ten thousand, a ratio of 1:100. Rashi points out that if the ratios were consistent, the number should have been a hundred pursues two thousand, not ten thousand. However, this shows the tremendous power of a group of observant Jews. When a hundred of us fulfill the laws of the Torah, our strength grows exponentially from twenty times to one hundred times. The larger the group, the stronger is our merit to accelerate the coming of Mashiach, the construction of the Third Temple, and the ultimate peace and prosperity for all.
The fork in the road
The opening line in this week's portion, "if you walk in the ways of My decrees", is a very accurate expression of the challenge facing each of us. All it takes is one step in the right direction to bring us on the path moving us closer to G'd. This can lead us to fulfill the three expectations of engaging in Torah study with the proper intention and performing the commandments. This path leads to the reward of all of G'd's blessings. However, by our own free will, we may choose, G'd forbid, to take the other path at the fork in the road. This is the path that leads us further away from G'd. The Torah contains frightening descriptions of how a person who stops toiling in his Torah study will eventually fall, step-by-step, to deny the existence of G'd. Even more frightening is how G'd has spelled out the consequences of this wrong path of behaviour. There are only two paths: one which takes us closer to G'd, and one that takes us further away. Each of us is responsible to make sure that we are on the right path. It is the first step that is crucial to bring us on the right path, and that step can be taken at any time.
Book of Judges
In the book of Judges, it is clearly described how the security of the Land of Israel was totally dependent on the observance of the people of Israel. As it says, (2:11-22), "And the Children of Israel did evil in the eyes of G'd And G'd got angry with Israel, and He delivered them into the hands of robbers and they could not stand up against their [Israel's] enemies. And G'd raised judges and G'd assisted the judges and helped them against their [Israel's] enemies all the days of the judge, as G'd changed His decrees due to their [Israel's] prayers And as the judge [of the generation] died, they [Israel] turned back and were more destructive than their fathers and went after the idols And G'd's anger flared up against Israel and He said I shall not further drive anyone [their enemies] away from them [Israel] ' in order to test Israel and see whether they observe the ways of G'd or not."
G'd will bless His nation with peace
The Torah clearly advises us which path we should follow. This is the path that leads to peace, prosperity and life. Each step on that path brings more blessing, and every Jew that joins this path not only adds to but compounds the merits of the Jewish people. It says in the last Mishnah of the Talmud, "G'd has no other vessel for blessing than peace", as it says, "G'd will give might to His nation, G'd will bless His nation with peace" (Tehillim 29:11). May we all join forces and live up to the expectations of G'd, so that we merit to see the fulfillment of all the beautiful blessings promised to us when the Jewish people will dwell securely in our land with peace for one and all.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network