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PARSHAS BECHUKOSAIIf you follow My decrees. (26:3)
A famous clich? from the world of sports has been applied to much of secular life: "Winning is not everything; it is the only thing." It is almost as if effort plays no role; toil is meaningless; blood, sweat and tears do not translate into success. Baruch Hashem, as Torah Jews, we live by a different measuring stick. We understand that the end result of every endeavor is dependent solely upon Hashem's favor. The reward we receive from Him depends on our effort, our yearning, our toil. In his commentary to the opening words of our parsha, Im Bechukosai teileichu, "If you follow My decrees," Rashi explains that the word teileichu, "you will follow," refers to ameilus, toil in Torah study. The Torah is, therefore, teaching us that one who engages in intensive Torah study will merit performing mitzvos properly, thus leading to the blessings which the Torah enumerates.
The words Im Bechukosai teileichu, as a reference to ameilus ba'Torah, have comprised a phrase that has garnered much exegesis from the Biblical commentators. Most notable is the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who rendered this pasuk forty-two different ways. He explains why toil is such an integral part of Torah study and explicates the connection with teileichu, which means "going" to Torah study. For the purpose of this thesis, we will focus on the last of his expositions.
Man distinguishes himself in his ability to grow from level to level. His life is a m?lange of constant change, with opportunities for progressive growth readily available. They are his for the taking - if he is willing to grapple, to toil, to exert effort. Man is a holech, one who moves forward. The ideal man is the individual who continually strives to be a mehalech, constantly on the move, seeking to improve himself. Man is never finished. He does not stop.
Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchev, reiterates this idea, citing the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (4:2), Mitzvah goreres mitzvah, "One mitzvah causes another mitzvah." One who performs a mitzvah merits the opportunity to perform another… and another. It is a constant, never-ending process. Thus, Torah study is called halachah, since one continues to move as a result of his study.
The Sefas Emes posits that one's Torah study should focus on always seeking a challenge, confronting material that is difficult, which he does not understand. By exerting oneself in those areas of Torah erudition which are beyond his area of expertise, he continues to grow, to be a holech. On the contrary, the more difficult and distant the subject matter, the greater the exertion and, concomitantly, the greater the progress.
In the Talmud Berachos 64a, Chazal state that talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, have no repose - neither in this world, nor in the World to Come. This is consistent with the pasuk in Tehillim 84:8, "They advance from strength to strength, [until they reach] the Presence of Hashem in Tzion." Maharal m'Prague explains that Chazal's intent is to teach us that, in his area of particular strength, the scholar never reaches a pinnacle; the intellect is never in a state of completed development, since there is no final resolution or conclusion to the potential of one's power of comprehension. By comprehending one thing, we are then able to go on to the next, which, in turn, enables us to comprehend even more and penetrate even deeper. Thus, the intellect can never be brought to such a point at which it is complete.
The Maharal supports his thesis with an allusion derived from the fractional measurements of the Aron. Wisdom can never be complete. That which can never be complete has no respite, since it never comes to a conclusion. A Torah scholar never has inactivity, because there is no state of completion to his intellectual grasp - even in the World to Come. Thus, the pasuk says that "they advance from strength to strength," achieving as much as they possibly can, until they reach Hashem. To say that, for a scholar, there is no repose is simply to say that there is no completion, no culmination to the intellect. This, indeed, bespeaks the greatness of his status, as being in a natural, intrinsic state which lacks completion, manifest by his constant advancement.
The spiritual life of a Jew should be one of constant advancement, introspection which leads to progressive change. In the world of chassidus, we find Horav Shmeleke, zl, m'Nikolsburg who writes, "If I would have the choice I would opt not to die, because in Olam Habba, the World to Come, there exists no Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days. (After all) what can a neshamah, soul, do without a Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement; and what taste is there to a life without (the opportunity to perform) teshuvah?" The ability to change - to move one from the "status quo" in which so many of us are comfortable to remain - is what gives life value and meaning. A life of complacency - inasmuch as one maintains his Torah-oriented way of life - is not a life. There is no vitality, no passion, and no enthusiasm. At some point, the status quo will implode, as the individual defers to his evil-inclination and begins to sink.
The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, writes that man is "measured" according to the effort he expends - rather than by his actual achievement. A person should always view himself as yet "not there," not having reached his goal, his potential. He is still in the middle of the ladder of spiritual ascension.
In the first perek of Netzach Yisrael, the Maharal writes that as long as Klal Yisrael is in galus, exile, they exist in a stage of incompletion. It is only with the geulah shelamah, ultimate Redemption, when we return home to our land, that we will find shleimus. Thus, galus is a state of constant flux, with our nation always under fire, spread throughout the world, awaiting that auspicious moment with the advent of Moshiach, that our return home will be heralded from Above. There is one great spiritual danger when the "nation" collectively thinks that they have achieved their purpose; they have realized their goal; they stop trying to go further. They think they are there. We are not. We are still in galus. Therefore, we must keep on trying, ascending, slowly, carefully, meticulously - until we reach the summit with the end of our galus.
Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, offers a meaningful interpretation of a pasuk in Tehillim 126:1, which we say often, probably without giving much thought to the translation. It alludes to our collective national yearning to return home: B'shuv Hashem es shivas Tzion hayinu k'cholmim, "When Hashem will return the captivity of Tzion, we will be like dreamers." David Hamelech writes prophetically about Klal Yisrael's return from exile, intimating that when the long-awaited return to Tzion occurs, the recollection of the past oppression will swiftly dissipate and fade away. It will seem like nothing more than a bad dream. The Lubliner Rav commented: "We pray to Hashem that when the geulah occurs and we merit to return to our home, that we will be like dreamers: we will retain all of the hopes and aspirations, the dreams and yearnings, which have accompanied us throughout our long galus; which gave us courage, comfort and succor to go on". Yes, even as citizens, we will always sense the "dreams".
Then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (26:4)
Parashas Bechukosai has a unique nomenclature: the parsha of the klalos, curses. It shares this distinction with Parashas Ki Savo - only Ki Savo has twice as much. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, notes the dearth of material blessings - especially in comparison to the curses. Clearly, we must wonder: what happened to the blessings? After two parshios of which a major component addresses admonition, rebuke, failure and punishment, one would think that there would at least be equal consideration for those who are good, they who listen and do. But there is not. Nine pesukim, of which two address reward in Olam Habba, the World to Come, and ten pesukim in Parashas Ki Savo. Surely, blessing is as important as rebuke and punishment - or could we be wrong?
Rav Sholom explains that the life of a Torah Jew who adheres to the first prerequisite stated by the Torah, Im Bechukosai teleichu, "If you will follow My decrees," which Rashi interprets as, She'tiheyu ameilim ba'Torah, "That you will toil in Torah," is already replete with blessing. The rest, the materialism, the rains, etc., are all icing on the cake. If the blessings begin with toil in Torah, then the "other" blessings are like the "zeroes" that are placed to the right of the number "one." The greatest blessing one can hope for is to toil in Torah. The rest are mere fringe benefits. The Torah is addressing the individual who is blessed. Such a person really does not need very much. The "nine pesukim" of blessings suffice to fill his "needs."
Why, then, does the Torah promise wonderful material blessings? When we listen to Hashem, and, very much the contrary, when we do not subscribe to His mitzvos? If material blessing is only of value when we attach ourselves wholly to the Torah, why mention it altogether? Rav Sholom explains that, indeed, when we adhere to Hashem's mitzvos we will enjoy blessing, and when we reject the Torah way of life, we will suffer exile and the pain and persecution that accompany it. It is a mistake, however, to think that the blessings are a reward for compliance and the curses are a punishment for rebellion. It is not an issue of reward and punishment. Rather, Hashem has given us the Torah with the way of life that it enjoins us to live. One who carries out the mitzvos and lives a Torah way of life will be blessed with reward in Olam Habba. The Torah has also told us that if we live a Torah life with joy and pride, Hashem will remove from us whatever deterrents and encumbrances impede our ability to study Torah in a calm, relaxed manner. In other words, our concern is only for the spiritual. When we indicate that it is the spiritual dimension for which we care and in which we will exert all of our strength, then Hashem "smoothes" out the material aspects of our lives, so that we can maintain proper, unimpeded focus on what is really important to us.
One's reach should exceed his grasp. People in varied ascending levels of intellect and maturity appreciate pleasure commensurate with their position on the totem pole of life. A child's perspective of satisfaction and pleasure is certainly different from that of an adult. The Torah has no issues with granting us pleasure and satisfaction - but it has to be on a mature level. An adult must acknowledge that life is more than fun and games. The frivolous, temporal pleasures that inspire a child are not cut out for an adult. Thus, the Torah would like us to be aware that, while material abundance is available, it should not be our prerequisite for living.
Many of us look around at friends and colleagues and often wonder enviously: Are they better off than we are? Have they succeeded in life more than we have? Have we succeeded - period? Are we measuring our success based upon that of our friends?
Rav Sholom cites an analogy rendered by Horav Eliyahu Dushnitzer, zl, that should provoke all of us to take stock of our lives and perhaps apply a little more cogency in determining our own achievements. Two wealthy men each purchased a very expensive diamond, investing all of their wealth in these rare stones. One of them lost the diamond, resulting in his falling into a state of deep melancholy, which ultimately led to his death. He was unaware that the diamond was lost somewhere in his palatial home and it was later found by his sons. The second wealthy man hid the diamond in his house in a place where no one would ever discover it. Using the diamond as equity, he increased his material possessions. Little did he know that the diamond had been stolen from under his nose, and his sons were paying the bills for his purchases. Imagine their individual surprise - and even shame - when, after their "120" they discover the truth about their worldly possessions. One man thought he had the world, but was unaware that his sons were footing the bill for his "trip." The other man thought he had lost it all, but later discovered that he had bequeathed his sons a precious legacy.
What a powerful analogy! How many of us are prepared to confront its ramifications? One can live like an adult, but request satisfaction like a child, while another can maintain the mature outlook that comes with adulthood and realize that there is more to life than "green pastures." A life of Torah beckons us all. It is a life that one can enjoy only once he has tried it. So, why not?
I will turn My attention to you. (26:9)
Rashi explains that it is as if Hashem were saying: "I will drop everything and pay attention only to you." Rashi cites the Sifra which gives a mashal, analogy, to explain this further. It was payday at the local factory, and the owner was passing out the long-awaited paychecks. Included among the many young workers was one senior worker. He had been with the company for many years, having faithfully served the owner through thick and thin with nary a complaint. Whenever the need arose and the owner needed something done, this senior worker always made himself available. As the owner was giving out the checks, he pulled this worker aside and said, "Listen my friend, you have been my loyal worker for many years. You were always there for me. Hence, I will be there for you. Your reward will be greater than theirs." Likewise, the righteous of this world request their reward from Hashem, Who is glad to oblige. First, He addresses the few good deeds performed by the wicked. Then, He gives all of His attention to the righteous whose fidelity to Him has been their hallmark. This is the meaning of U'panisi aleichem, "I will turn My attention to you." Hashem will quickly conclude His "business" with the wicked, so that He can spend time with the righteous.
We have no idea concerning the value of a mitzvah, its impact on our lives, and the reward each mitzvah generates, both in this world and in Olam Habba, the World to Come. We often execute mitzvos complacently, not taking into consideration their overwhelming significance. The following episode culled from the biography of Horav Eliyahu Roth, zl, gives us an inkling about the inherent value of a mitzvah. Rav Roth once approached a young Torah scholar and asked, "If someone offered you one thousand dollars not to put on Tefillin, would you agree to forego the mitzvah?"
"Absolutely not!" the young man exclaimed. "That is no test. No amount of money could sway me from putting on Tefillin."
"Let us say he offered you ten thousand dollars. Would you be so determined to carry out the mitzvah?" Rav Roth asked.
"Rebbe, Heaven forbid, should I entertain such a thought. A mitzvah is a mitzvah. It takes precedence over everything," was the young man's reply.
Rav Roth was relentless. He was about to prove a point. "If the person offered you one million dollars, payable immediately, if you skip putting on Tefillin, would you be able to remain strong and committed to the mitzvah?" the Rav asked.
"I would never renege on a mitzvah, regardless of how much a person would offer me," the young man declared emphatically.
Hearing this, Rav Roth looked deeply into the young man's eyes and raised his voice. Practically shouting at the young man, he exclaimed, "Do you realize what you have just said? You reiterated that when you put on Tefillin you are aware that you are carrying out a mitzvah which you would not exchange for a million dollars - even ten million dollars could not sway you! If so, why can I not see on your face the value of the mitzvah? If one who puts on Tefillin feels that he would not trade in this mitzvah for ten million dollars, it should be written all over his face. The excitement, enthusiasm and exuberance of performing a mitzvah that is significant should be palpable, but, in your case, it is not! Listen to what you are saying!"
It is a powerful story with a message that we probably all fail to think about. We would never trade away a mitzvah. Yet, when we perform it, we are lackadaisical, at best, in its execution.
I recently had a personal lesson concerning the value of mitzvos. We take them for granted, because we have been performing mitzvos since "day one." There are others who have not been observant all of their lives and, for them, the mitzvah experience carries a powerful significance. It would serve us well to learn from them. I have the privilege of visiting a group of Jewish inmates in a state correctional facility. Those Jews who are incarcerated there never knew what Yiddishkeit was, its beauty, message and way of life. Everyone in my group has chosen to embrace Yiddishkeit in one way or another to the best of his ability, in conformance with the state's rules and regulations. Awhile ago, I introduced "Brian" to these pages, a middle-aged Jew who grew up in New Jersey, with the memory of his Orthodox grandfather still in his mind. Regrettably, the allure of contemporary society, the drug culture, quick-money and everything in-between overwhelmed him. He joined a biker gang and, for thirty years, was invariably on the wrong side of the law.
During Brian's most recent visit with the state correctional facility we met and he decided - enough was enough; he was going to turn his life around. He did. For the last two years, Brian has not missed putting on Tefillin daily. His direction in life has changed; his goals and objectives, his purpose for living, have all been positively altered. The climate in such a facility is not exactly pro-religious of any sort - Jewish, especially. Orthodox Judaism is a term totally unknown to the security forces which play a dominant role in defining the facility's "culture" and "character." Thus, one day one of the guards took issue with Brian's Tefillin. They were wrongfully removed from his cubicle, as Brian was now identified as a security risk.
The entire debacle is not an uncommon occurrence. It took a few days, and after speaking to the "powers that be," explaining that Tefillin are considered permissible property, Brian's Tefillin were returned. What surprised me was Brian's attitude during the few days that he could not put on Tefillin: "Rebbe, when they took my Tefillin, it was as if they were taking away my life. This is how I start my day. I put on Tefillin; I thank Hashem for another day, and then my day is worth living. Without my Tefillin, I don't feel Jewish."
I am sure that others in the field of Jewish outreach will agree that it is comments such as these that make all of the frustrations worthwhile. One more story. This is about another Jew who understood the significance of a Torah life. One day, an elderly Jew approached Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, and asked the rav if he could find time in his busy schedule to learn Mishnayos with him. The man made it quite obvious that he was serious about this request.
Slightly taken aback, Rav Zilberstein asked the man what had prompted his request. His response should encourage all of us to sit up and think.
"I am a survivor of the Holocaust," the man began. "I was beaten, persecuted and the subject of a number of heinous medical experiments. While I survived in body and soul, my ability to procreate was destroyed. They saw to it that I would be the last member of my family. I would never have children. As I aged, I realized that sooner or later I would one day have to confront my own mortality. I began to think about the future and became concerned, as one pressing question gnawed at me: Who would learn Mishnayos for my neshamah, soul, after I passed from this world? It was then that I decided it would be me! I would learn Mishnayos for my neshamah! Rebbe, I am preparing myself for that time when I will have no one to learn for me. That is why I have asked the Rav to study with me."
I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember, and I will remember the land. (26:42)
Rashi notes that the order of the Avos, Patriarchs, is reversed with Yaakov Avinu listed first and Avraham Avinu last. This order is not found anywhere else in the Torah. He explains that the merit of Yaakov Avinu should suffice to effect redemption for his descendants. If, however, greater merit is needed, there is always Yitzchak Avinu. If ever that is insufficient, the nation would need Avraham Avinu's merit to catalyze redemption. In an alternative exegesis, Horav Moshe Bick, zl, explains that, actually, Avraham innovated a novel approach to serving Hashem. Before Avraham came on the scene, the righteous of previous generations - such as Chanoch, Lemech, Noach and Shem - focused on spirituality, suggesting that the way to serve Hashem was through spiritual activity, performing good deeds, prayer and etc. Avraham taught us that one serves Hashem by elevating the physical, sanctifying the mundane, consecrating activities that one would view as simple, everyday, earthly endeavors. With the proper intention and appropriate dedication, one can elevate the most ordinary act and transform it into a hallowed experience.
Hashem placed us on a physical world, but He wants us to live a life replete with spirituality. How do the two coincide? It takes effort, mental reflection and deliberation. By applying one's mind and dedicating his heart, his intentions are focused on glorifying Hashem - not on self-gratification. Eating becomes a tool for strengthening the body to serve Hashem, and the list goes on. Reaching out to our fellow Jew becomes an act of kavod Shomayim, glorifying Heaven. While one may reach out through the medium of Torah study, Avraham Avinu did it very effectively with his aishel, providing food and hospitality to the traveler. Even when Avraham was serving food, he was korei b'Shem Hashem, declaring Hashem's Name, teaching a world how to love, revere and serve G-d.
It might be most convenient to serve Hashem only in the bais ha'medrash, but that is not what Judaism is all about. We have to make the bais ha'medrash part of our daily lives, taking it with us wherever we go. If we feel "uncomfortable" taking the bais ha'medrash to certain places - there is always the alternative - not to go - period. For the Jew there should not be a dichotomy between the home, the office and the bais ha'medrash. A Jew is a Jew everywhere, with Hashem being a G-d for all seasons and all venues. By elevating the physical and sanctifying the material, we bring Hashem into our lives 24/7. This is what our Patriarch Avraham taught us.
Thus, the Torah presents Avraham Avinu last, since his derech, approach, in serving Hashem was the preeminent way. He elevated eretz, earthliness, and transposed it into Shomayim, Heavenly spirituality. Because of his effort and his form of service, we merit that Hashem considers us worthy of receiving the "land."
Hashem yimloch l'olam va'ed - Hashem shall reign forever and ever.
We recite this statement so often that it has almost become a national credo. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, interprets it as serving a triple purpose: 1) a statement; 2) a promise; 3) a prayer. It is a statement recognizing that Hashem's power, wisdom and beneficence will endure forever. This declaration intimates that all idolatry, all competing religious beliefs will dissipate, as the truth of Hashem as revealed to His people becomes manifest and accepted in the world. It is a promise on our part: having accepted Hashem as our King, we reciprocate as His devoted servants forever. This occurred at Krias Yam Suf with the Splitting of the Red Sea. Our relationship to Hashem became one of indebtedness for all of the wonders and miracles that He wrought for us. Out of a deep sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude, we obligated ourselves to forever do His will. Last, this pasuk is a prayer that Hashem should cause all men to acknowledge Him as sole King, but especially that His nation, Klal Yisrael, throughout all their generations, be unfailingly devoted to serving Him.
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