What Are You Worth?
דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש כי יפלא נדר בערכך נפשת לה
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: If a man articulates a vow to G-d regarding a valuation of living beings…” (Vayikra 27:2)
This week we conclude the book of Vayikra with Parshat Bechukotai, which is commonly referred to as the parsha of “tochacha” – rebuke. It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah’s laws. Each curse seems worse than the one before it, and indeed, throughout the generations it has always been a challenge to find someone willing to be called to the Torah for the section in which these verses are read.
It is curious to note that just after concluding this startling section of rebuke, the parsha abruptly switches to a section dealing with the laws of “Arachin” – the dedication of the value of oneself or another person to the Temple. This section seems completely misplaced. What is the relevance of these laws to the rebuke which dominates the rest of the parsha?
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky recounts an inspiring story which will shed some light on this question. During the Holocaust, when many of the horrifying curses of this week’s parsha were manifested before our very eyes, the Germans took sadistic pleasure in torturing and tormenting the great Rabbis who served as teachers and inspiration for the Jewish people. The added suffering endured by these righteous leaders is unfathomable.
In one particularly gruesome incident, a number of merciless Nazi officers beat Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, known as the Klausenberger Rebbe (1905-1994), to the brink of death. After enduring seemingly endless blows, the officers asked the bleeding and semi-conscious Rabbi Halberstam if after all of this suffering he still believed that the Jews are G-d’s chosen people. He responded unequivocally in the affirmative.
Amazed at Rabbi Halberstam’s seemingly naive and misplaced faith, they pressed him for an explanation. He replied, “As long as I am not the cruel oppressor of innocent victims, and as long as I am the one down here on the ground maintaining my unwavering faith in my principles and traditions, I am still able to raise my head proudly and know that G-d chose our people.”
Applying the lesson of this story to our original question, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859), explains that after reading the terrifying curses contained earlier in the parsha and seeing how they have tragically been fulfilled throughout history, Jews may begin to lose belief in their value and self-worth. As a nation, we have been persecuted more than any other people throughout the ages. Such intense national suffering could easily cause a person to give up hope.
In order to counter this mistaken conclusion, the section outlining the painful times which will befall the Jewish people is immediately followed by the section dealing with the laws of Arachin. This section details how much a person is required to donate if he chooses to dedicate the “value” of himself or of another Jew to the Temple. This juxtaposition comes to remind us that even in the darkest times, after enduring the most inhumane suffering fathomable, although we may not be accorded respect by our oppressors, our intrinsic worth in G-d’s eyes is eternal and unchanging.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Rashi (Vayikra 26:3) explains that the phrase אם בחוקתי תלכו “If you will walk with my commandments,” refers to the study of Torah. In what way can the metaphor of “walking” be applied to the study of Torah study? (Gur Aryeh)
One of the punishments in Parshat Bechukotai is that “you will flee with nobody pursuing you” (Vayikra 26:17). Wouldn’t it be a greater punishment if there were indeed pursuers threatening to capture or kill them? (Chanukas HaTorah by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel)
The מצוה of מעשר בהמה (Vayikra 27:32) obligates anyone to bring one tenth of all new cattle to Jerusalem as an offering. The meat of this offering must then be eaten in Jerusalem. What (positive) effect would mandating that such large quantities of meat be eaten in Jerusalem have on the Jewish nation? (Chinuch, Mitzvah #360)
“If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; 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. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your bread to satiety, and you will dwell securely in your land. I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you.” (Vayikra 26:3-6)
The introductory words of this week’s Torah portion paint and an idyllic portrait of a harmonious life when we live according to the laws of the Torah.
1. The material reward as indicated in these verses seems to contradict a well-known teaching from the Talmud (Kiddushin39B) that there is no reward in this world for observing the mitzvot. How can these two ideas be reconciled?
2. The phrase “you will eat your bread to satiety” seems to imply that we will have an abundance of food. If that is in fact the Torah’s meaning, why didn’t it say so more clearly? Might there be another message implied by the verse?
3. Why is there a need for the blessing that “you will lie down with none to frighten you”? The blessing seems superfluous as G-d assures us that He “will provide peace in the land.” Does the blessing of peace imply something more than its simple meaning?
Q: One of the greatest and most well-known of the medieval Rabbis, whose explanations of the Talmud are widely quoted and debated until the present day, was Rabbeinu Tam, a grandson of Rashi who lived in the 12th century. However, it is interesting to note that his birth name was actually Yaakov. How did he come to be universally known by the peculiar appellation “Rabbeinu Tam?”
A: It is related that somebody once had a dream in which he received the answer to this historical curiosity. The law is that when a married woman dies, her husband – or his relatives – inherits her possessions. The Medrash explains that the curse of ותם לריק כחכם (v’tam l’rik kochachem) – “Your strength will be spent in vain” (Vayikra 26:20) – refers to a case in which one gives a large dowry to his daughter upon her marriage, only to have her die shortly thereafter, thus causing that the possessions and money for which her father worked so hard will almost immediately be passed from his family. One of the laws which Rabbeinu Tam enacted in his lifetime was that the estate and possessions of a woman who dies within 12 months of marriage shall be inherited by her father – or his next-of-kin – instead of by her husband. Because his actions brought an end to this curse of ותם לריק כחכם(v’tam l’rik kochachem), he became universally known as Rabbeinu Tam! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: One of the reasons given for the happiness associated with Lag B’Omer is that on this day, the students of Rabbi Akiva, who had died en masse every day since Pesach, stopped dying. As there are no coincidences in Judaism, why did they specifically stop dying at this time?
A: The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot represents a period in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot. The leaders of the Mussar movement (study of Jewish ethics) point out that the Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (6:6) teaches that there 48 traits by which the Torah is acquired. Since there are 49 days during which we prepare to re-accept the Torah, they maintained that it would be appropriate to use this time to develop within ourselves the qualities and attributes which are necessary to accept and acquire the Torah on Shavuot. On each day of this period, they worked on understanding and instilling within themselves one of these qualities. Since there were only 48 traits, they used the last day for a general overview of all of them.
In his work Lekach Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Beifus suggests that if the founders of the Mussar movement engaged in this commendable practice, certainly the lofty Sages of the Talmud did so as well. The 32nd trait by which the Torah is acquired is אוהב את הבריות – love of one’s fellow man. The Talmud teaches (Yevamot 62b) that the reason for the death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples was that they didn’t feel and display appropriate respect toward one another. Rabbi Beifus suggests that once they had worked on the trait of loving one another on the 32nd day, they rectified the cause of this tragedy, and indeed on the following day the students stopped dying! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
SOLVING WORLD HUNGER
“If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and fulfill them; then I will provide your rains in their time and the land will give forth its produce and the tree of the field will bring forth its fruit.” Vayikra 26:3, 4
The Land Will Give Forth Its Produce – If heeding the Torah produces such bountiful reward, why do so many Torah scholars suffer from abject poverty?
This parsha begins with the letter “Aleph,” and concludes with a “Tav” [see verse 13]. This symbolizes that the blessing promised in these verses is conditional upon the fulfillment of the entire Torah from “Aleph” [the first letter of the Aleph Beit] through “Tav” [the last letter of the Aleph Beit]. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Through the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, G-d showers the world with blessing. This blessing is transmitted through special spiritual conduits and is not limited only to the Torah scholars, but benefits the entire world as well. When the majority of the worlds’ population is oblivious to, and live contrary to, the will of G-d these conduits are severely constricted and the flow of blessing is greatly reduced. Since whatever meager amounts that do pass through must suffice to sustain the entire universe, there is precious little remaining for the true servants of G-d, who are primarily responsible for it in the first place. – Rav Chaim M’Volozhin, Ruach Chaim, Perek 1
The Shelah HaKodosh quotes the Talmud [Tractate Brachot 17b] that says that every single day a heavenly voice emanates from Mt. Chorev and declares, “The entire world is nourished on behalf of Chanina, my son, but Chanina, my son, suffices with a small measure of carob from Erev Shabbat to Erev Shabbat.” Chanina was a saintly and pious person whose merits earned him enough sustenance to sustain himself in grandiose fashion. He, however, took very little for himself and allowed the rest to be used to sustain the entire world. The munificent blessing wrought by his piety maintained the entire world, but one would hardly have known that this was the case judging by Chanina’s own dire financial circumstances.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
“I will rest My Sanctuary among you and My spirit will not loathe you.” Vayikra 26:11
I will rest my Sanctuary – The Holy Temple
My spirit will not loathe you – My spirit will not abhor you. – Rashi
Will not loathe you – Even if there are individual Jews who are unworthy and undeserving of His Presence, He will choose to focus on the majority rather than the minority and dwell among us. – Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin)
This verse is found among the verses that discuss the great blessing that the Almighty will bestow upon us for obeying his commandments faithfully. Consequently, it is hard to fathom how this verse landed among them. Should we consider the fact that He will not loathe us a blessing or an insult? Riv”ah explains that ordinarily when one dwells in close proximity to another, flaws and imperfections that previously were indistinguishable from a distance become magnified and difficult to overlook. Often, this heightened perception leads him to intensely dislike the person, although they initially appeared to be compatible. Therefore, the Almighty promises us that in His great love for us He will even consent to dwell among us. Lest we be concerned however, that this will lead to greater scrutiny and ultimately loathing for us, He assures us that He will never allow Himself to loathe us for our shortcomings.
“However, if you will not listen to Me and will not perform all of these commandments.” Vayikra 26:14
You Will Not Listen To Me – To toil in Torah. – Rashi
And Will Not Perform These Commandments – Since you haven’t studied, you will also not observe. – Rashi
This parsha, in its entirety, describes the frightful consequences of our lack of observance of Torah and Mitzvot. One might think that this antipathy toward His will is a result of a deep-rooted desire to commit evil, and a product of a severely troubled childhood. Rashi, however, points us in a different direction. Ultimately, says Rashi, all of the rebellious acts that a Jew commits toward the Almighty, trace back to one core problem: insufficient Torah study. This can be compared to a home in which the entire family frequently takes ill throughout the winter due to the frigid temperatures in their unheated quarters. There is nothing inherently unhealthy about the family. Their health problems stem from the householder’s unwillingness to stoke the fireplace with sufficient firewood. Similarly, when the soul is insufficiently warmed by the fire of Torah, all sorts of unwholesome behavior follows as a result.
GOOD AND BAD MEMORIES
“I will then remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land.” Vayikra 26:42
Jacob…Isaac…Abraham – Why are the Patriarchs listed in reverse order? So as to say: The merit of the youngest, Jacob, alone is powerful enough; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him, and he is worthy. – Rashi
My covenant with Isaac – Why is the word ‘remembrance’ not said regarding Isaac? Because his ashes are visible before G-d as though they are heaped up and lying on the altar. – Rashi
Also My covenant…Also My covenant – Regarding Isaac and Abraham it says “also” or “even” but not by Jacob? This is because all of Jacob’s children turned out righteous, whereas Isaac and Abraham each produced one righteous and one wicked child [Esau, Ishmael]. One would have thought that this fact would disqualify them from serving as sources of additional merit. Therefore, the Torah stresses that G-d will summon even their merit when we act dishonorably. – Medrash Rabbah
Although remembering the merits of the Patriarchs would appear to be a positive measure on our behalf, the Shelah HaKadosh points out that it can reflect negatively upon us too. This is because the Patriarchs fought with all their might to establish a path for us to follow that stressed righteous and upright behavior. They accomplished this against overwhelming odds. We, their descendants, who enjoy the benefit of their example and inherited their spiritual genes that should serve to make it easier on us, unfortunately strayed from the path they set for us and behave in ways that shame their memory. By recalling their merits, the Almighty will find additional reasons to hold us accountable for our actions.
A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES
“I shall remember for them the covenant of their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in sight of the nations to be a G-d for them, I am Hashem.” Vayikra 26:45
The covenant of their ancestors – That I made with the Twelve Tribes [i.e. G-d promised the fathers of the twelve tribes, the sons of Jacob, that He would redeem their offspring.] – Sforno
I am Hashem – What do these words come to teach us? I am Hashem, the unchanging One. I haven’t and never will change. I will always be who I am. Anything that went wrong between us is because you have changed your ways, not I. My good intentions, as spelled out in this parsha, will all come to fruition once you have returned to Me in the end of days. – Sforno
In sight of the nations to be a G-d for them – The nations perceived the Divine Presence through the miracles of Egypt [where even the dogs were silent so as not to distract from the message], yet they only perceived G-d on the level of Elokim.
I am Hashem – The Jewish people, however, enjoyed an even greater degree of revelation, that of Hashem. – Arvei Nachal, Parshat Ki Tavo, Drush 5
Through the events in Egypt, both the Jews and the nations of the world perceived the existence of the Almighty. The name Elokim symbolizes the Almighty conducting Himself with the attribute of “strict justice.” The Egyptians got an up close and personal view of the Almighty as He smote them, wiping out every firstborn in retribution for their cruelty toward the Jews. The name Hashem symbolizes His attribute of kindness and we, the Jewish people, experienced the greatest kindness as we were redeemed from our enslavement and then cared for like newborn infants during our sojourn in the desert.
WHAT’S YOURS IS YOURS
“Any tithe of cattle or of the flock, any that passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to G-d.” Vayikra 27:32
Under the Rod – The entire newborn herd is put into a corral with a narrow exit and the animals are allowed to leave in single file. The owner then strokes each tenth one with a rod dipped in paint, marking it as the tithe. – Talmud Bechorot 58b
Why must the owner conduct this elaborate ritual just to offer a tenth of his flock? Why not have him count the herd and then remove one tenth of the total number of animals? Rav Shlomo Aharonson zt”l [Rav of Kiev] explained that if a person is asked to merely remove a tenth of his total income, he will be loathe to do so once he realizes that it amounts to a sizable number of animals. By insisting that he allow nine animals to pass before him prior to giving away the tenth, the Torah is helping him come to terms with the tithe. As the animals pass before him one by one, he realizes that the bulk of his wealth remains his indeed, and that only every tenth animal must be consecrated for sacred purposes. By arranging it so that he first encounters his good fortune before being asked to give, he is far more likely to agree to part with a small portion of it, than if the sole focus was on the tithe.
Hey, I Never Knew That
Come back next week for a new Hey! I Never Knew That.
Word of the Week
“I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt… and I led you קוממיות—komemiyut (Vayikra 26:13). Targum Onkelos translates komemiyut as “in freedom.” However, Rashi and Ibn Ezra both understand the word as related to קומה—komah—posture and render it as “an upright posture,” or as Aryeh Kaplan translates it, “with heads held high” (The Living Torah). Rashbam comments that once the yoke of slavery under the Egyptians was removed, it was natural for the Jews to stand more erect and raise their heads. The Midrash understands it to mean walking without fear of anything (Bereshit Rabbah 12:6). In Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals, we ask G-d to lead us komemiyut, “with heads held high, without fear and in freedom” to our land.
Come back next week for a new Dear Rabbi
Parsha at a Glance
The parsha opens with a promise by G-d to bless the Jewish people if they are loyal to the Torah. Rain will fall in the proper time, the earth will produce abundantly, and peace will prevail. Enemies who threaten Jewish security will be pursued successfully by small numbers of the Jewish people. G-d will maintain His covenant with us, increase our population greatly, and ‘reside’ among us.
However, if we do not obey His commandments, and we refuse to see His hand in the events of history, then we will be pursued by fearful sickness, enemies who will frighten and persecute us, and a natural world which will refuse to yield to our efforts. If we do not learn from the initial punishments, they will multiply sevenfold. War, plague, famine, desolation, exile, fear and persecution will follow us. Eventually, the remnant of the Jewish people will return to G-d. It is G-d’s promise that despite our defections and betrayal, He will never forgo the covenant He made with our ancestors, and will eternally maintain His closeness with us.
The parsha explains the procedure for assigning values to persons, animals, and property for those who vow to donate to the Sanctuary.