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Parshiyyot Behar-Bechukotai 5780 — 05/16/2020

Parshiyyot Behar-Bechukotai 5780 — 05/16/2020

BeHar: Vayikra 25:1-26:2
Bechukotai: Vayikra 26:3-27:34

If you will follow My decrees and safeguard My commandments and perform them, 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 (26:3-4).

The next time someone says to you, “The Bible says …,” you might mention to them that these very simple, apparently straightforward verses, have 42 different interpretations from the Or haChaim alone. It helps, of course, if one can read the text in the original, and has access to the Rabbinic literature, so that one learns to pick up on slight nuances of the Hebrew and can draw on (and expand on) the traditional understanding of the words, and of the verses’ relationship to other verses and to the general outlook of Jewish thought. I’d like to explore a few of Or haChaim’s approach, and suggest a framework that may provide a common ground for understanding all of them.

Incidentally, Bechukotai is the last parashah in the book of Leviticus. The last parashah in the next book, Numbers, is parashat Mas’ei, which recounts the stages of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel. There are 42 stages. Whether Or haChaim purposely chose to enumerate exactly 42 approaches here to connect with the 42 stages there I don’t know – Artscroll doesn’t comment on that, and it’s possible that nobody considers it important enough to deal with. If there is a connection and the numerical value is just alluding to it, I don’t know what that connection might be. I’ll leave it as “an exercise for the reader.”

Or haChaim begins with an introduction where he shows, based on earlier commentators’ analyses, that the phrase If you will follow my decrees (lit. If in my decrees you will walk / go) means to “toil in Torah,” that is, to engage in intensive Torah study. He further goes on to say that the word decree (chok) here means that there is an obligation not only to learn Torah, but to review one’s learning constantly. Artscroll here comments:

If the purpose of studying Torah was simply to promote Torah knowledge, there would be no need for Hashem to encourage us to study the same things over and over – which He does by causing us to forget our learning. The fact that Hashem designed the world this way shows that the mitzvah of Torah study is so inherently valuable that Hashem found it worthwhile to encourage such study by limiting our ability to remember things.

In other words, Torah study is not simply instrumental, a means to the end of performing right action, action in accord with Gd’s Will. Now of course, even if we remembered everything we learn, it would still be valuable to review our learning, as each time we go over a subject we see more deeply into it. As our experience grows, our ability to see subtleties that were always there, but beneath our level of acuity, increases. This is true even with secular literature, and in any of the sciences and humanities. But what is the inherent value of Torah study?

Our Sages tell us (Zohar), “Gd looked in the Torah and created the Creation.” The Torah, meaning the “supernal Torah,” of which the Written and Oral Torahs that we have are but projections, must reside with Gd in the eternal transcendent. It is the “blueprint of creation,” or the film through which the light of Gd projects all the material and spiritual levels of Creation. This “supernal Torah” thus encodes the Will of Gd in all its ramifications in the Creation.

When the mind settles down completely and transcends all thought, it experiences this transcendental level directly. That means that it experiences the supernal Torah directly, albeit not very clearly at first. Like any other training, it takes repetition before the transcendent becomes stabilized on the level of the individual’s awareness and perception. Once it is stabilized however, the awareness is fully and spontaneously in tune with the Will of Gd. With this power behind, one’s actions come to fruition effortlessly – the rains fall in their season, the fruits of the Land are copious and satiating (as Or haChaim points out in one of his 42 approaches), etc. Further, the mind, being completely expanded, is permanently satisfied, and doesn’t have to go running after physical pleasure to be satiated. One is spiritually so fulfilled that one can act without attachment to the action or to its fruits.

I believe that this spiritual fulfillment is the inherent value of Torah study as I have described it, and the repetition that Or haChaim discusses is the repetition of the experience of the transcendent that is necessary until it is permanently stabilized – because when we come out into activity after experiencing the transcendent, we “forget” it as the mind becomes active again.

In his fourth approach to the verse, Or haChaim says:

“…you will walk…” is in line with what Scripture says (Prov. 3:6): In all your ways know Him, etc. Rambam writes in Hilchot Dei’ot (“Laws of Knowledge” 3:3), “…he should have in mind that his body be sound and strong so that his mind can be in a settled state that will allow him to attain knowledge of and ponder matters of wisdom. One who walks in this path all his life will end up serving Hashem constantly…” This is the verse’s statement here: If you walk for My decrees, you shall walk – in all your ways: while eating, drinking, talking, arising from your physical nature.

Here we see that the mind “in a settled state” allows one to “attain knowledge of … wisdom.” The ultimate wisdom is the Torah in the transcendent, and once that settled state is permanently established in the mind, one serves Hashem constantly, because one’s individual will has become identified with the Divine Will.

There are 41 more interpretations that Or haChaim gives to these verses. I can’t speculate whether the approach I have outlined is what he had in mind. He was an accomplished Kabbalist and some of his remarks certainly seem like they are describing experiences of the transcendent. Be that as it may, I believe one can use the framework I have hinted at consistently and cogently to understand not just Or haChaim, but other commentators and Scripture itself.

Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazeik!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parshiyyot Behar-Bechukotai

The main thing that we can learn from these parshiyyot is to schedule regular periods of rest into our lives so that we are able to spontaneously act according to Gd’s decrees. And we are to schedule deeper, longer rest also regularly: just as we are to rest every seventh day and the land is to rest every seventh year and all are to be freed in the 50th year. This way Gd’s decrees become engraved in our heart, our soul, every fiber of our being .

“Behar” means “on the mountain,” literally, Mt. Sinai; symbolically, that level of our awareness when we are able to hear Gd and to express Gd’s Will in our actions in our familiar everyday world.

Also, since Rabbinic tradition derives “Sinai” from “sin-ah,” “hatred,” a reference to the hatred of other nations for the Jews who received the Word of Gd, we might see Mt. Sinai as being the mountain of hatred, above which is Gd, freeing the mountain, Moses, and through Torah given to Moses, all of us.

Hatred comes from fear which comes from restrictions and the suffering that goes with living life at a level less than we feel we need, deserve. But contact with Gd, through attunement, through rest, loosens the restrictions, opens the awareness to fuller happiness and ability, and dissolves fear and hatred. The Sabbath and the Sabbatical Year are examples of means to gain this rest and to gain the experience that brings trust and releases doubt and fear.

But even on days other than the Sabbath, we begin the day with prayers, pray afternoon and evening and conclude the day with prayers. These prayers and other spiritual practices we may do can serve as times of rest during the day.

Ideally, our continued prayers, activity, and Sabbaths become integrated and we experience a continuous state of lively rest that pervades every moment of our day: we become perfectly attuned with Gd and are restored to Full Awareness, that Gd is One, that our individual personalities are roles that Gd plays, and we are One with the One, we are All in All, the One and Only “I.”

In Behar, Gd declares that land belongs to Him and cannot be sold permanently. And just as every 7th day, we must rest from work, so also every seventh year, the land must rest.

In this parshah, Gd tells Moses about the Sabbatical year: every seventh year, no work is to be done on a field and the produce is free for anyone to take: human or animal.

Lev 25: 21. Gd says that in the sixth year, He will bless the land so that it produces enough for three years, and, thus have not only enough for the sixth year, but for the seventh and the eighth also.

Symbolically, the Sabbatical can mean that when we are fully attuned to Gd, our work is easy, and the benefits of it do not feel hard-earned but like Gifts from Gd, Gifts that we can share freely, KNOWING that Gd is our Shepherd, we shall not want. So the Sabbath is not only every seventh year, or day, but the all-time reality of our life; each moment Gd is giving us rest, each moment is bearing fruit for itself and for the future.

And the seventh Sabbatical, the 49th year, all work ceases, all indentured servants are set free.

Just as the land belongs to Gd, so does everyone and everything, including servants.

Symbolically, this can mean that the restrictions we place on the freedom of our thoughts and feelings to flow into action–restrictions that come from, for example, from our choice of professions, daily routines, residence—the restrictions are released and we can live life freely in the confidence that Gd is blessing our thoughts and feelings, renewing our lives.

Interestingly, when we look at the cortex of the brain, the grey matter, we see it has six layers and below the cortex is white matter. We can look at this as a concrete basis, symbolizing the six days in which Gd created/revealed the separation between Heaven (the subtle) and Earth (the gross); the seventh is the day of rest. Similarly, in terms of years, and in terms of seven times seven years – each group of six is a subtler level of the cortex and of the affairs of the physiology and of our lives governed by that level; each seventh is, similarly, a transcendence within the layer to a more restful level of functioning.

So Torah is built into our physiology, our physiology is built of Torah, and by attuning ourselves to Torah, we attune every aspect of our personality to Gd and Gd’s Creation–we become capable of loving Gd with “all our heart, all our soul, all our might” and we become capable of loving not only “our neighbor as our self” but also all of Gd’s Creation – land, crops, animals, mountains.

Torah and the various aspects of Rabbinical Guidance (Talmud and Siddur, for example) and our healthy life style create the routines and intuition that can return us to full knowledge of the Oneness that is Gd and We Combined, of the Oneness that is Pure Oneness, of our Self that is Pure Love, capable of Loving Itself and our neighbor, all Creation, as our Self.

Bechukotai” means “By my decrees”: Gd declares that when we follow Gd’s Decrees, all will be well. Rain will fall, harvests will be abundant, we will be at peace, victorious over enemies, fertile (“productive”), and be aware of Gd’s Presence. The opposite will happen if we do not follow Gd’s Decrees.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, author of Tanya, dedicated to unifying the ritualistic ways of the Vilna Gaon, with the Joyful ways of the Bal Shem Tov, comments that “Bechukotai” comes from the word “chok”, which means “engraved” and so we need to follow Gd’s decrees to such a deep and natural extent that we do not even to have to think about doing right – the decrees are engraved in our soul and we automatically follow them.

Signs of this engraving are spontaneous Joy in our lives.

Our congregation enjoys this Blessing to a high decree and we spontaneously radiate this and share it with others through every action, becoming more and more aware and Aware of Gd’s Presence every moment and experiencing every moment the softening of the duality of Gd as Wholeness and we as limited expressions of Gd.

Life is definitely worth living!

Baruch HaShem