Parashat Bechukotai / פרשת בחקתי

DIASPORA TORAH READING FOR SHABBAT: BECHUKOSAI 
Universal Torah commentary
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: BECHUKOSAI, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
Haftara: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14 



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).

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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.”

Shabbat Shalom!!!

Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum

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ISRAEL TORAH READING FOR SHABBAT JUNE 1: BAMIDBAR 

Universal Torah commentary
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
Haftara: Hosea 2:1-22.

IN THE WILDERNESS

It was fitting that the Giving of the Torah took place in no-man’s-land amidst the stark desolation of the Wilderness. Here no temporal king could claim that he played host to the event, thereby meriting a special share in the glory. The Children of Israel were chosen to receive the Torah not because they were the most glorious, but because their hearts had been broken through exile and slavery. For the only way to receive the Torah is through humility, symbolized in the lowly Mount Sinai.

Having been appointed as guardians of the Torah, the task of the Children of Israel was to bring it up from Sinai to the Promised Land, from which they were to shine its light to all the inhabitants of the world. Genesis traces the roots of the Torah and of the souls of Israel who were to be its bearers, and Genesis is thus the “head” of the Torah. Exodus is the “hands”, describing how G-d redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt “with a mighty arm” and made them into a unique nation through the gift of the Torah and the presence of His Sanctuary in their midst as the focus of their national life. Leviticus is the “heart” of the Torah, setting forth its main laws in all areas of life.

Now we come to the Book of Numbers — the “legs” — tracing the journeying of the Children of Israel on foot through the wilderness to the borders of the Promised Land, with all the accompanying trials and tribulations. Our parshah of BAMIDBAR begins in the Wilderness of Sinai, almost a year after the Children of Israel’s arrival to receive the Torah. By now they had been taught all the main laws of the Torah, and the Sanctuary was in place and fully functional. The next stage was to take to the road and carry the Ark of the Covenant — encompassing the entire Torah — up to the land. The commandment to Moses with which BAMIDBAR opens, to take a census of the people and organize them by tribes, was a preparation for their departure from Sinai, which is narrated in BEHA’ALOSCHA (Numbers ch. 10).

As described in our parshah, the twelve tribes of Israel were to be encamped around the Sanctuary in four groups of three tribes each. When they traveled through the wilderness, they were to travel in the same formation. The positions of the twelve tribes were the same as those of Jacob’s twelve sons when they carried his funeral bier from Egypt to the Cave of Machpelah.

Ramban (Nachmanides) opens his commentary on BAMIDBAR by pointing out that the way the people encamped around the Sanctuary was directly parallel to the way they encamped around Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah. We find in next week’s parshah that they were commanded to send those who were ritually impure away from the Sanctuary and out of the camp (Numbers 5:1ff). This parallels the command to Moses to put boundaries around Mount Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah — for “the stranger who draws near will die” (1:53; 18:7). At the end of our present parshah, we learn that even the Levites, whose task was to carry the Sanctuary parts during their travels, were forbidden to see the Sanctuary in its “moment of shame” while being dismantled (Numbers 4:20). Correspondingly, the Israelites at Sinai were forbidden to break through and go up the Mountain in order to feast their eyes.

These and other parallels point to the profound conceptual link between the Sanctuary (and Temple) and the Giving of the Torah. The Giving of the Torah at Sinai was a one-time event: the Torah “came down” from heaven to earth, providing man with a ladder of ascent to G-d. Having come into this world, the Torah had to remain the central focus of our attention forever afterwards. The Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of Stone and Moses’ Torah scroll thus had pride of place in the Holy of Holies at the very center of the Sanctuary, with the Twelve Tribes encamped around it. [Similarly, in the Synagogue, it is customary to read the Torah from a desk in the middle of the Synagogue among all the people.] 

From the Wilderness of Sinai, the Children of Israel were to carry the Ark of the Covenant up to the center-point or “navel” of the earth in Jerusalem, “for the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem”. This was the spot where Jacob dreamed of a ladder joining earth back to heaven. The Hebrew word for ladder is SuLaM, which has the same numerical value as SINaI (=130).

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THE TRIBES OF ISRAEL

The Zohar states that the form of the Sanctuary corresponds to the form of the work of creation. Thus the various different areas making up the Temple courtyards and buildings correspond to the different “worlds” discussed in the Kabbalah (as explained in “Miskeney Elyon” by Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto, RAMCHAL, translated in “Secrets of the Future Temple”). 

The arrangement of the twelve tribes in four camps around the Sanctuary corresponds to the “four camps of the Divine Presence” and the “four camps of angels” that channel the flow of divine sustenance into the world. These are aspects of the MERKAVAH (“chariot”) seen by the prophets, representing the system of providence through which G-d governs the world. The four camps correspond to the four roots of creation (Kindness, Judgment, Compassion and their manifestation in reality: “Kingship”) and to the four elements (Water, Fire, Air and Earth, which is the “vessel” of the first three). The various different names and numbers making up the account in our parshah of the census of the Twelve Tribes consist of codes and ciphers that are bound up with the root forces in the spiritual and physical worlds.

The difficulty which many find in relating to sections dealing with the different tribes and their names and numbers is compounded by the fact that today the majority have become disconnected and even alienated from their own “tribal” roots after thousands of years of exile and wandering. Originally the consciousness of tribal affiliation among the Children of Israel was very powerful, as is evident from the end of parshas EMOR, where the episode of blasphemy was caused when members of the tribe of Dan refused to allow the son of the Egyptian to camp with them because his lineage was flawed. 

Today, however, few Jews even know which tribe they come from, although the majority (besides Kohanim and Levites) assume that they are from the tribes of Judah or Benjamin, which were the only two that did not disappear when the Ten Tribes went into exile prior to the destruction of the First Temple. (Some believe that the Sefardic communities of Spain and Morocco came from the tribe of Judah while the Ashkenazi communities of Germany and Poland came from the tribe of Benjamin. This is mentioned by Rabbi David Kimchi — RADAK — in his commentary on the Bible.)

Besides being unaware of their own tribal affiliation, many Jews are also quite unaware that many people throughout the world whom they consider to be gentiles actually believe themselves to be the Children of Israel. Moreover, in many cases they believe they DO know to which tribe they belong. This includes enormous numbers of people in the Indian sub-continent, Africa and South America etc. as well as the Mormon Church, which considers America today to be the home of the Ten Tribes, and prominent members of British and European royalty and aristocracy, who believe they are the true Israelites (without explaining why they do not observe the Sabbath or other Torah laws).

Just to complete the mix-up, if you were to ask most Jews today to enumerate the different components that make up the nation, the answer would not be the twelve tribes but rather: ultra-orthodox, orthodox, traditional, conservative, reform, secular-right, secular-left, etc. etc.

Our fragmentation and disarray in today’s sophisticated “civilized” world is in sorry contrast with the order of the camp in the wilds of the desert that saw our birth! Perhaps we need to develop a new way of looking at the different types that make up the people of Israel in terms of the order set forth in BAMIDBAR: how near are they to the Sanctuary-Temple idea or how far away? 

Shabbat Shalom!!! Chodesh Tov Umevorach!!!

Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum