If you walk in My statutes (Leviticus 26:3)
The word “if” is to be understood as a plea on the part of G‑d: “If only you would follow My statutes . . .”
(Talmud, Avodah Zarah 5a)
If you walk in My statutes (Leviticus 26:3)
The word chok (“statute” or “decree”), which gives the Parshah of Bechukotai its name, literally means “engraved.”
The Torah comes in two forms: written and engraved. On the last day of his life, Moses inscribed the Torah on parchment scrolls. But this written Torah was preceded by an engraved Torah: the divine law was first given to us encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which were etched by the hand of G‑d in two tablets of stone.
When something is written, the substance of the letters that express it—the ink—remains a separate entity from the substance upon which they have been set—the parchment. On the other hand, letters engraved in stone are forged in it: the words are stone and the stone is words.
By the same token, there is an aspect of Torah that is “inked” on our soul: we understand it, our emotions are roused by it; it becomes our “lifestyle” or even our “personality”; but it remains something additional to ourselves. But there is a dimension of Torah that is chok, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with G‑d that is of the very essence of the Jewish soul.
(Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
A rabbi once offered the following analogy: “Every Jew is a letter in the Torah. But a letter may, at times, grow somewhat faded. It is our sacred duty to mend these faded letters and make G‑d’s Torah whole again.”
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch heard this, and objected: “No, the identity of the Jew cannot be compared to erasable ink on parchment. Every Jew is indeed a letter in G‑d’s Torah, but a letter carved in stone. At times, the dust and dirt may accumulate and distort—or even completely conceal—the letter’s true form; but underneath it all, the letter remains whole. We need only sweep away the surface grime, and the letter, in all its perfection and beauty, will come to light.”
Rabbi Jacob said: There is no reward for the mitzvot in this world . . .
[What is the proof for this?] In connection with the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents it is written, “In order that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). In reference to the mitzvah of “dismissal of the nest” (to chase away the mother bird before taking the young) it is written, “That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days” (ibid. 22:7). Now, what if a person’s father says to him, “Ascend to the loft and bring me young birds,” and he ascends to the loft, dismisses the mother and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed—where is this man’s wellbeing, and where is this man’s long days? But “in order that it may be well with you” means on the day that is wholly good; and “in order that thy days may be long,” on the day that is wholly long.
Perhaps such things don’t happen? Rabbi Jacob saw an actual occurrence.
(Talmud, Kiddushin 39b)
Since we know that the reward for the mitzvot, and the good which we shall merit if we keep the way of G‑d written in the Torah, is solely in the life of the world to come . . . and the retribution exacted from the wicked who abandon the ways of righteousness written in the Torah is the cutting off [of the soul] . . . why does it say throughout the Torah, “If you obey, you will receive such-and-such; if you do not obey, it shall happen to you such-and-such”—things that are of the present world, such as plenty and hunger, war and peace, sovereignty and subjugation, inhabitancy of the land and exile, success and failure, and the like?
All that is true, and did, and will, come to pass. When we fulfill all the commandments of the Torah, all the good things of this world will come to us; and when we transgress them, the evils mentioned in the Torah will happen to us. Nevertheless, those good things are not the ultimate reward of the mitzvot, nor are those evils the ultimate punishment for transgressing them.
The explanation of the matter is thus: G‑d gave us this Torah; it is a tree of life, and whoever observes all that is written in it and knows it with a complete knowledge merits thereby the life of the world to come. . . . Yet G‑d also promised us in the Torah that if we observe it with joy . . . He will remove from us all things that may prevent us from fulfilling it, such as illness, war, hunger, and the like, and He will bestow upon us all blessings that bolster our hand to observe the Torah, such as abundant food, peace, and much gold and silver, in order that we should not need to preoccupy ourselves all our days with our material needs, but be free to learn the wisdom and observe the commandments by which we shall merit the life of the world to come . . .
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 9:1)
Maimonides’ concept of the “reward” for mitzvot in this world has a parallel in Torah law. The law states that farm workers must be allowed to eat of the food they are working with; even an animal may not be “muzzled as it threshes.” This is not payment for their work—their wages they receive later, after their work is done—but a special provision that says that they must be allowed to eat from the produce they are working with.
By the same token, we are employed by G‑d to develop and elevate His world through the performing of mitzvot. The actual reward for our work will come later, in the world to come, after our task is completed; but G‑d is also “obligated” to allow us to enjoy the material blessings of this world, which is the object of our toil.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Doubtless, the religions of those times—as do the religions of our times—all promised rewards destined for the soul after its departure from the body, so as to distance the proof of their claims. Because they are not in possession of the truth, they cannot promise an imminent and tangible sign. . . . But our Torah makes promises that can be confirmed in the here and now—something that no other teaching can do.
At times when people do not usually go out, like the eve of Shabbat.
In the days of Moshiach, every species of tree will bear edible fruit.
(Torat Kohanim; Rashi)
There may be food, there may be drink, but if there is no peace, there is nothing.
That there will not be war goes without saying; the sword will not even pass through your land on the way to another country.
(Torat Kohanim; Rashi)
But is this the right proportion? It should have stated only “and a hundred of you shall pursue two thousand.” But the explanation is: a few who fulfill the commandments of the Torah cannot compare with many who fulfill the commandments of the Torah.
(Torat Kohanim; Rashi)
An animal walks with its face to the earth, for earthiness and materiality is all that it knows. Man walks upright, for man was born to gaze upon and aspire to the heavens.
(Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch)
There are different opinions among the Kabbalists in regard to the rewards and punishments that the Torah predicts for the observance or non-observance of the mitzvot. Nachmanides is of the opinion that “the rewards that befall a person for the doing of a mitzvah, or the punishments that come because of a transgression, come about only by supra-natural means. Were a person to be left to his nature and natural fate, the righteousness of his deeds would not give anything to him nor take anything from him. Rather, the Torah’s rewards and punishments in this world are all miracles. They come hidden, for the one who observes them thinks them to have occurred by the normal conduct of the world; but they are in truth divinely ordained rewards and punishments to the person.”
Other Kabbalists, however, maintain that this is a natural process. In the words of Shaloh: “The supernal worlds respond to the actions of the lower world, and from there the blessing spreads to those who caused it. To one who understands this truth, it is not a miracle, but the nature of the avodah (man’s life’s work to serve G‑d).” In other words, punishment for wrongdoing is no more G‑d’s “revenge” than falling to the ground is divine retribution for jumping out the window. Just as the Creator established certain laws of cause and effect that define the natural behavior of the physical universe, so too did He establish a spiritual-moral “nature,” by which doing good results in a good and fulfilling life, and doing evil results in negative and strifeful experiences.
A third approach sees the suffering associated with sin as the byproduct of G‑d’s rehabilitation of the iniquitous soul. The analogy is the removal of an infective splinter from a person’s body: the pain that is experienced is not a “punishment” as such for the person’s carelessness, but an inevitable part of the healing process itself. The fact that a foreign body has become embedded in living flesh and has caused its decay makes its removal a painful experience. By the same token, when something alien to the soul’s bond with G‑d has become embedded within it, the extraction of this alien body, and the healing of the bond, is experienced as painful to both body and soul.
All sins derive from the sin of insignificance: when a person ceases to be sensitive to the paramount importance which G‑d attaches to his life and deeds. “I don’t really matter” is not humility—it is the ultimate arrogance. It really means: “I can do what I want.”
The most terrible of punishments is for G‑d to indulge the sinner this vanity. For G‑d to say: “All right, have it your way; what happens to you is of no significance”—for G‑d to act toward him as if He really does not care what happens to him.
(The Chassidic Masters)
When a father punishes his child, the suffering he inflicts on himself is greater than anything experienced by the child. So it is with G‑d: His pain is greater than our pain.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
It was told of Elijah the Righteous that while searching for those who were languishing with hunger in Jerusalem, he once found a child faint with hunger lying upon a dungheap.
“Of what family are you?” he asked him. “I belong to this-and-this family,” the child replied. He asked: “Are any of that family left?” and he answered, “None, excepting myself.”
Thereupon he asked: “If I teach you something by which you will live, will you learn?” He replied, “Yes.” “Then,” said he, “recite every day: “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one.” But the child retorted: “Be silent, for one must not make mention of the name of G‑d”—for so his father and mother had taught him—and straightaway he brought forth an idol from his bosom, embracing and kissing it, until his stomach burst, his idol fell to the earth, and he upon it, thus fulfilling the verse, “I shall cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 63b)
Even in their desolation, they retain their holiness.
(Talmud, Megillah 28a)
This is actually a blessing for Israel—that their enemies will derive no satisfaction from the land, for it shall remain desolate as long as the people of Israel are exiled from it.
G‑d did a kindness to the people of Israel, that He scattered them amongst the nations. For if they were concentrated in one place, the heathens would make war on them; but since they are dispersed, they cannot be destroyed.
(Talmud, Pesachim 87b; Midrash Lekach Tov)
The people of Israel were exiled among the nations only in order that converts should be added to them.
The “converts” that the Talmud speaks of are the “sparks of holiness” contained within the material resources of the world, which are redeemed and elevated when we use these resources in our service of G‑d.
(The Chassidic Masters)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Come and see how beloved are Israel in the sight of G‑d, in that to every place to which they were exiled the Shechinah (Divine Presence) went with them. They were exiled to Egypt and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, “Did I reveal myself unto the house of your father when they were in Egypt” (I Samuel 2:27). They were exiled to Babylon and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, “For your sake I was sent to Babylon” (Isaiah 43:14). And when they will be redeemed in the future, the Shechinah will be with them, as it says, “Then the L‑rd your G‑d will return with your captivity” (Deuteronomy 30:3)
(Talmud, Megillah 29a)
Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel says in the name of Rav: The night has three watches, and at each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion and says: Woe to the children on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My Temple and exiled them among the nations of the world . . . Woe to the father who has banished his children, and woe to the children who have been banished from the table of their father!
(Talmud, Berachot 3a)
Every person was born to a mission in life that is distinctly, uniquely and exclusively their own. No one—not even the greatest of souls—can take his or her place. No person who ever lived or who ever will live can fulfill that particular aspect of G‑d’s purpose in creation in his stead.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
A wealthy businessman and his coachman arrived in a city one Friday afternoon. After the rich man was settled at the best hotel in town, the coachman went off to his humble lodgings.
Both washed and dressed for Shabbat, and then set out for the synagogue for the evening prayers. On his way to shul, the businessman came across a wagon which had swerved off the road and was stuck in a ditch. Rushing to help a fellow in need, he climbed down into the ditch and began pushing and pulling at the wagon together with its hapless driver. But for all his good intentions, the businessman was hopelessly out of his depth. After struggling for an hour in the knee-deep mud, he succeeded only in ruining his best suit of Shabbat clothes and getting the wagon even more hopelessly embedded in the mud. Finally, he dragged his bruised and aching body to the synagogue, arriving a scant minute before the start of Shabbat.
Meanwhile, the coachman arrived early to the synagogue and sat down to recite a few chapters of Psalms. At the synagogue he found a group of wandering paupers, and being blessed with a most generous nature, invited them all to share his meal. When the synagogue sexton approached the paupers to arrange meal placements at the town’s householders, as is customary in Jewish communities, he received the same reply from them all: “Thank you, but I have already been invited for the Shabbat meal.”
Unfortunately, however, the coachman’s means were unequal to his generous heart, and his dozen guests left his table with but a shadow of a meal in their hungry stomachs.
Thus the coachman, with his twenty years of experience in extracting wagons from mudholes, took it upon himself to feed a small army, while the wealthy businessman, whose Shabbat meal leftovers could easily have fed every hungry man within a ten-mile radius, floundered about in a ditch.
“Every soul,” said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak in conclusion, “is entrusted with a mission unique to her alone, and is granted the specific aptitudes, talents and resources necessary to excel in her ordained role. One most take care not to become one of those ‘lost souls’ who wander through life trying their hand at every field of endeavor except for what is truly and inherently their own.”