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Parashat 05/18/2011

Parashat Bechukotai

by Robert Rabinoff


And you will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. (26:16)

And you will expend your strength in vain. (26:20)

And the land of your enemies will devour you. (26:38)

These three verses, all from the Tochachah (Admonition/Rebuke) go to the heart of the issue of our identity as Jews in the exile.  Since they are part of the Tochachah they of course present the negative aspect of this debate, but it is important to note this aspect, especially as our position in our society lately does not seem quite as secure as we once believed it to be.


The plain meaning of the first verse that as a result of our mistaken thought processes and consequent misbehavior the land will not yield its bounty, and what it does yield will provide food for invading armies when they besiege us.  But the word zera (seed) is also used for offspring.  Thus the verse could be read homiletically: You will have children in vain [for they will not share your culture or values] and your enemies will consume [assimilate] them. To a certain extent this has already come true in this country in my generation (i.e. the baby boomers), and has only accelerated with our own children.  We can all think of examples – one in the public eye is Chelsea Clinton’s husband, Marc Mezvinsky (whose father was the US Representative from Fairfield’s congressional district in the early 70’s incidentally).


The other two verses deal with each of us more directly.  While it is clear that subjugation to a foreign power can lead to a situation where we are worked to death without gaining any benefit from our labors, it is equally true that in more open societies such as we find in the Western democracies, one can work oneself to death, without having gained anything of lasting value.  How many of us have “made it” in America only to find that all the material success in the world is ultimately meaningless unless we use it properly – for our own spiritual advancement and for the growth of the spiritual values of the community and the world at large?  How many of us have “made it” in America and have not even come to that realization?!  That is truly expending our strength in vain!  We come to the end of our life with a big estate and a shrivelled soul.


There is a story about one of the Sages of the Talmud whose “estate” consisted of a bag of carrots.  On his deathbed he wept.  He reasoned that if he had anything material left over, it represented something he had been given to use for his spiritual growth, and he had not used it properly.  How diametrically opposed is this perspective to that which animates so much of our thinking and behavior!  How much time and energy has been spent recently debating the estate tax in this country, so that multimillionaires and billionaires can pass all their material possessions to their heirs – all of it, in some sense, testament to the fact that they were given huge material resources to use for their betterment and the betterment of their society, and it never got used.  I write software for a living and am no fan of Microsoft’s products (or their business practices), but one has to admire Bill Gates (and Warren Buffett), who amassed a huge fortune and then proceded to give the great bulk of it away to causes that aim to make our society better.  I would submit that this is a truly Jewish perspective on material resources and we can and should learn from their example.


The Jewish people as a whole, and each of us individually as members of the Jewish people, have been given the mission of infusing Divinity into the material world.  All of the energy and resources we have been given should be directed towards this one end.  In our every interaction with the material world, and even more so with other people, we need to bear this mission in mind.  If something is deflecting us from that goal we need to recalibrate our priorities and make sure that we are not deflected.


This does not mean that we shouldn’t be working for a living, or supporting our families, or enjoying the material world in moderation and in accord with Gd’s commandments.  It does mean that enjoyment of the material world can never be an end unto itself.  Every time we enjoy something, it has to be in a way that unites the finite, material value with the Divine, infinite source from which that object springs.  If we do not do this (e.g. by making the appropriate b’rachah/blessing before partaking of any material thing, to acknowledge that Gd is the source of this enjoyment) then we are truly wasting our Gd-given energy and intelligence, and our “enemy,” that is attachment to the material, will indeed consume us.


On one level, we are in exile because we don’t live in the Land of Israel, where the Jewish genius for spirituality can flower most profoundly, where our individual lives and our communal life finds the greatest support from the environment.  On a deeper level, no matter where we live, if our souls are disconnected from their Source, we are in exile.  No matter where we find ourselves, our main priority in life must be to “repent” – that is, to return to the infinity that is our birthright within us.  Only then can we live a life confident that all our energy is spent for a Divine purpose, and will reap us infinite and everlasting rewards.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 4

R. Levitas of Yavne said:  Be of an exceedingly humble spirit, for the hope of a human being is worms [i.e. physical decay].

R. Bulka comments: “… All this modesty is justified, because if the ultimate destiny of individuals is decay, in the physical sense, then there is nothing one can do to save the physical.  Rather, one should emphasize that which is eternal, the soul aspects of human existence.”  I read a comment on this Mishnah once that kind of turned it on its head.  When we are summoned to give an accounting before Gd for our lives, we will want to argue, as did King David, “I am a worm and not a man.”  In other words, we will ask Gd to forgive us our sins, for we are weak, physical creatures, pulled downwards by our physical urges.  But if we want to argue that we are just worms, then we’d better start acting like worms here and now!  Otherwise, if we strut around pridefully on this earth, Gd will surely see right through our false humility when it really counts.  Humility isn’t just a nice character trait – it’s our only hope for becoming what we really all need to be.