Lessons for Humanity
from the Weekly Parshah
Torah Reading: Parshas BECHUKOSAI, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
IF YOU WILL GO IN MY STATUTES
Our parshah, BECHUKOSAI, puts the seal on the book of Leviticus, which is the "heart" of the Torah (Genesis being the "head", Exodus the "arms", Numbers the "legs" and Deuteronomy the "mouth", Malchus). BECHUKOSAI marks the conclusion of G-d's revelation to Moses in the Sanctuary in the camp at Sinai and the sealing of the Sinaitic Covenant, while the coming book of Numbers recounts the journeying of the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land.
As the seal on Leviticus, the book of the "heart", BECHUKOSAI addresses the two sides of the heart: love and fear. Our love of G-d is aroused by the promises of blessing if we will GO in His statutes, while our fears are aroused by the dire punishments for failure to do so.
What does it mean to GO in His statutes? This is explained by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
The life of Torah and mitzvos should be one of constantly striving to move forward from level to level in our fulfillment of the actual commandments. In every commandment that we carry out, there is a level of meaning that we can grasp within our minds, yet at the same time, the mitzvah has profoundly deeper meaning that is now beyond our grasp. These two levels are those of NA'ASEH ("we will do") and VENISHMA ("we shall hear") respectively. NA'ASEH applies to that which is within our grasp now, the physical mitzvah with its plain intention -- WE WILL DO. We must go ahead and do it now on the simple level even if as yet we do not have deeper understanding, even if the level of VENISHMA, WE SHALL HEAR -- understanding -- is still beyond us. To GO in G-d's statutes means to strive constantly to turn that which is as yet beyond us -- our VENISHMA -- and make it into our NA'ASEH, something that we CAN meaningfully accomplish. This is brought about when we pray to G-d to help us in our practice and to give us deeper understanding. Deeper understanding also depends upon deeper study.
When we thus turn what was our VENISHMA into a new level of NA'ASEH -- because we now incorporate our newly attained, deeper insight into our practice -- we thereby discover that a new level of VENISHMA opens up ahead of us. It is this higher level of VENISHMA that we must now strive to attain and turn into a new, higher level of NA'ASEH for ourselves. We must continue this way striving to go from level to level, constantly integrating new levels of understanding into our practice. Thus we constantly GO from level to level in our practice (Likutey Moharan Part I, Torah 22).
* * *
AND IF NOT.
Rashi in his commentary on BECHUKOSAI explains how the terrible penalties for failure to follow the path of the Torah are built upon a seven-fold schema, because the essential cause of the exile was the violation of the Sabbath and the Sabbatical years. At the very core of the sins that invoke the terrible cycle of punishment are seven basic sins, each of which drags the next in train: (1) Neglect of study. (2) Neglect of practice. (3) Despising others who practice. (4) Hatred of the sages. (5) Preventing others from practicing. (6) Denial of the divine origin of the commandments. (7) Denial of the existence of G-d.
Graphic illustrations of the fulfillment of all of the terrible penalties described in our parshah in actual Jewish history are recounted in the Midrash. The infringement of the seven basic sins causing the exile has been a recurrent theme in all of Jewish history from biblical times until today. The rebellion of the Ten Tribes under Jereboam son of Nevat against the House of David under Rehav'am represented a craving for greater license than was permitted by the House of David, whose royalty depends upon constant study of the Torah and in particular the oral tradition. Under the northen king Ahab [whose influence is said to have been worldwide], hatred and persecution of the sages -- the prophets -- became institutionalized. Later on, the Assyrian King Sennacharib's chief spokesman marching against Jerusalem under Hezekiah was a renegade Jew, Ravshekah.
After the end of the Babylonian exile, the return to the land and the building of the Second Temple, new challenges to the authority of the Torah arose, such as from those who denied the afterlife or the oral law, or denied the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Among the most notorious enemies of the Torah were those who hellenized in the Second Temple period, when it was "politically correct" to be Greek. The festival of Chanukah commemorates the miraculous saving of the authentic Torah pathway from the assault upon it by Greek culture.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam (Maimonides) wrote a letter known as IGERET TEIMAN encouraging the Jews of Yemen to remain faithful to the Torah and give their lives if necessary rather than submit to forced conversion by their Moslem rulers. In this letter, Maimonides explains the difference between the assault upon the Torah by Greek thought and the assault upon the Torah by Christianity and Islam.
The Greek philosophers denied the existence of G-d (Level 7) and the revelation at Sinai (Level 6) and accordingly provided justification for preventing Jews from practicing the Torah, e.g. Shabbos, circumcision, etc. (Level 5). leading to open violation and vilification of the Torah by the Hellenists. Greek philosophy was a direct assault upon the Torah, leaving the Jews of the time with a choice -- whether to go after the Torah or after the Greeks.
On the other hand, Christianity and Islam did not blatantly repudiate the entire Torah of Moses. What they did was to establish alternative Torah's that were more acceptable to non-Jews, leaving the Jews of their respective periods with a different kind of choice: whether to remain faithful to the traditional Torah of Moses or to follow an alternative "Torah".
Hatred of the sages of Israel is deeply entrenched in Christianity, because the claims of its founder and his followers about his divinity were a direct assault upon the authority of the sages and an attempt to steal the Torah from its true guardians, the House of David under Hillel (as later handed down in the Mishneh and Talmud). The adherents of the new religion wrote their own "Torah" openly mocking the Torah of Moses, as when their leader is displayed licensing the plucking of grain on the Sabbath for charitable reasons against the protests of the "Pharisees", who are depicted as being mean. In the writings of the new religion, the Pharisees (i.e. the rabbis of the Mishneh) are characterized as the evil face of institutionalized religion. The new religion drew all of its teachings from the Torah, but detached them from the accompanying stringencies of the Law, while attaching them instead to its own devotional system focussing on its own saints and heroes. Particularly after the conversion of Saul (Paul), who was a Pharisee, the new religion institutionalized the systematic vilification of the Torah tradition of the rabbis, turning the written Torah (Torah, Nevi'im & Kesuvim, TaNaCh) into a mere introduction to its own new "Torah" or "Testament", which was meant to replace the Sinaitic Covenant.
Denial of the pathway of the Torah of Sinai -- the written Torah and the oral Torah -- is thus deeply built into the very structure of Christianity, which became the dominant religion in the western and many other parts of the world and one of the main foundations of its culture, together with that of Greece and Rome. As Christianity gained strength, persecution of Torah-observant Jews together with burnings of Torah scrolls and Talmuds became a regular occurrence.
Denial of the Torah given to Moses at Sinai is also inherent in Islam, the founder of which claimed to have supplanted Moses as the ultimate Prophet. The founder of Islam was initially enamored of the Torah of Moses, but wanted to adapt it in his own way. Angered at the stubbornness of the Jews in resisting his changes, he established his own new "Torah" as an alternative to the "old" Torah. Islam saw itself as the stick with which to beat the recalcitrant Jews who despised and neglected their own Torah. In the writings of Islam the "People of the Book" are depicted as renegades to their own teachings.
During the long exile since the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews who have remained faithful to the Torah of Moses have been surrounded until today by a most formidable cultural assault against their own tradition from the two younger sister religions, Christianity and Islam. This two have gained the ascendancy and taken all the glory, parading their own alternative Torahs in the face of the Torah of Moses.
It is understandable that over the generations, many Jewish souls, subject to this cultural onslaught, have fallen victim to the allurements of the surrounding religions. In addition, since the time of the European renaissance and the "Age of Reason", secularism has become a new alternative to religion of any kind, creating yet another allurement from the stringent code of Judaism, which looks more irrelevant than ever in the modern world.
In this way the Torah of Sinai has been apparently completely marginalized by almost the entire world. The Sinai tradition is guarded by seemingly powerless networks of rabbis and their students, sitting in the Yeshivahs, daily studying the oral tradition as brought down in the Talmud, and by the numerically tiny proportion of the world's population who are Torah-observant.
What is it about the real Torah that makes those who love her cling to her even in the face of adversity on every side? Throughout the generations until today, those who keep the Torah of Moses and abstain from the 39 forbidden labors on the Sabbath have been the butt of every jester and jeerer. Meanwhile Christianity, Islam and every other religion are on the ascendant, including the religion of Satanism and the universal religion of self-indulgence and material consumption.
What love is it that makes those who strive to follow the authentic Torah of Moses continue day after day in the face of all this? How do we keep on GOING in the Torah, even though her face is shrouded in a dark cover -- for in this upside down world, the deeper meaning of the Torah is not revealed?
But if we keep studying the Torah, she will reveal her face to us. The way to keep GOING in the Torah is to GO ON STUDYING the Torah!
In the merit of our study of the book of Leviticus and our on-going study of all the Five Books of Moses, may we be blessed with all the blessings of our parshah: "If you will GO in My statutes."
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5770 - 2009-10 All rights reserved