Parshas Bechukosai - Being "Ameilim B'Torah"

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May 07 2009

"If you will go in my statutes and keep my commandments...I will provide rain in its proper time and the earth will yield its bounty...and I will give peace in the land..." (Vayikra 26:3-6) Parshas Bechukosai details the berachos that flow from following God's ways, and it also contains the curse ("Tochacha") that is decreed for violation of Hashem's Torah.

What does it mean to "go in my statutes and keep my commandments"? Rashi invokes the famous interpretation of the Toras Kohanim, that going in God's statutes and keeping His commandments refers to being "ameilim b'Torah" - toiling in Torah study. Why is being engrossed in Torah learning the key to receiving Hashem's berachos? Isn't general performance of mitzvos - including learning Torah on certain occasions - the true path of serious Torah observance? Does highly-focused, intense Torah learning occupy such a central, critical role?

The question gets thicker when we proceed to the Tochacha section of the parsha. "And if you do not listen to Me and you do not perform all of these commandments, and if you despise My statutes and abhor My laws, failing to perform all of My commandments, and you disavow My covenant, I shall place My face against you, and you will be smitten by your enemies..." (Ibid. v. 14-17) Rashi explains these pesukim (verses) along the lines of the Toras Kohanim that if one fails to be engrossed in Torah study, he will not observe the mitzvos, leading him to despise those who do observe them, then to abhor Torah sages, subsequently trying to prevent others from observing Torah, after which he will deny the validity of the mitzvos and eventually become a heretic. This sounds like quite a severe interpretation of the literal meaning of the pesukim, which simply refer to one who does not keep the Torah. What is going on?

Judaism is unlike many other contemporary religious and social groupings in that it is a dynamic spiritual quest. Judaism is not a lifestyle or a culture; it is a path of clinging to God and striving for kedusha - holiness. The only method for achieving this and for staying on target is to understand the mitzvos that we perform and to be actively engaged in Hashem's message to us - His Torah. Observance of mitzvos without an active understanding and a dynamic engagement with God's teachings reduces Judaism to a culture like all others, in which people have distinct routines, ceremonies, traditions and rituals that they live through, undergo and eventually treat as a matter of rote or custom. When one fails to appreciate the import, background and intricacies of Torah and mitzvos by delving into a study of their details and meaning, and they become mere cultural expressions and habits, regardless of how prevalent and engrained they seem to be in one's lifestyle, the commitment is bound to wane. Often, those who do not have an adequate yeshiva education and who - for various reasons - do not seek to achieve an understanding of Torah, become the cynics, the prime critics of rabbinic leadership and true Torah adherents, and frequently these people adopt a way of life that represents diluted standards or a total abrogation of faith. When one delves into Torah by learning it and experiencing it dynamically as God's message to us, his genuine appreciation of mitzvos and enthusiasm fortify his Torah commitment. On the contrary, failure to become engrossed in Torah study engenders an attitude that mitzvos are mere rituals, and Judaism becomes practiced as a culture or a lifestyle, frequently leading to a catastrophic (often gradual) abandonment of Torah and a distancing from any relationship with Hashem. Only by being "ameilim b'Torah" can one preserve Judaism's true message and assure that Torah is properly valued and clung to.

The number seven takes an unusually prominent role in Parshas Bechukosai. Rashi (on v. 15, quoting from Toras Kohanim, as above) notes that failure to be actively engaged in Torah learning is part of a seven-step process that leads to heresy; the Tochacha is comprised of seven levels of punishment; violation of the Shmitah year - the seventh (sabbatical) year's requirements to refrain from agricultural work - is featured repeatedly in the Tochacha. Why is the number seven so central to the Tochacha?

Seven represents completion of the creation or development of something. The universe was created in seven days; the Kohanim underwent a seven-day period of preparation and induction into the Kehunah (Priesthood); it takes seven days for one who is tamei meis (defiled due to contact with the dead) to emerge from his status and obtain a state of purity; it took seven days for Bnei Yisroel to exit the 49 levels of tumah from the time they departed Mitzrayim (Egypt), and it took them seven weeks to transform into a nation that was conditioned to receive the Torah at Sinai. The number seven is surely representative of completion of creation and development.

Perhaps this explains the role of the number seven in the Tochacha. One who invokes the wrath of Hashem for failure to become engrossed in Torah, ending up as a total heretic, has completely reversed his spiritual status. His relationship with God has unraveled. This relationship, embedded in Creation, Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus) and Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), has degenerated and disintegrated. The seven-step processes and the achievement of being close to Hashem have been torn asunder. The number seven as employed in the negative reflects this large-scale disintegration; all creative processes and developments that led to such a person's former status as a Torah Jew have been reversed. The number seven plays a downward role, as spiritual processes totally unravel and disintegrate.

The Shmitah year is likewise an important embodiment of the symbolism of the number seven, for Shmitah was instituted to attest to the completion of the cycle of developments that enabled Bnei Yisroel to dwell in Eretz Yisroel and control the Land. One who transgresses the laws of Shmitah implies a denial of the divinely-orchestrated developments that led to Jewish sovereignty over the Land, and violation of Shmitah is also a statement of heresy insomuch as the violator denies God's ability to sustain the nation for a year without agricultural toil. This heresy is identical with the ideological views of an individual or a society that disconnects from Hashem as an eventual result of not toiling in Torah study; in both cases, the creative and developmental processes (reflected by the number seven) that led to closeness with Hashem are totally reversed, symbolized by a spiraling downfall marked in the negative by the number seven.

May we strive and merit to cling to God through His Torah and arrive at the supernatural level of eight, expressed by the light of Chanukah and the Covenant of Milah, as well as by Giluy Shechinah (Revelation of the Divine Presence) in the Mishkan on its eighth day of service and the unique relationship with God as marked by Shmini Atzeres (Eighth Day of the Festival), when we enter the realm of the supernatural and encounter Hashem's immanence and closeness.


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