This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
The latest article is posted here once a week. You can search the archive for past articles.
Parshat Bechukotai (5760)
The Baal Shem Tov once was sitting with his pupils at the Shabbat afternoon meal when suddenly he closed his eyes, as though he was listening to some inner voice, and began to smile.
His face became flushed with joy and he suddenly opened his eyes, pushed back his chair, rose to his feet and began to sing and dance ecstatically, spinning around and lifting his his arms and legs like a young boy.
It wasn’t long before all those present were dancing around him in a big circle not even knowing why, but after several minutes the Besht (short for Baal Shem Tov) suddenly stopped, sat everyone down, caught his breath and began explaining.
“ You see… yesterday afternoon, a woman came to me crying. She had been married for ten years with no children and the doctors had just told her that her case was hopeless. She begged me to bless her with a child, but I saw in heaven that it was not to be. In fact I was informed that if I tried to change the heavenly decree I would be punished. Nevertheless I disregarded the danger to myself and blessed her.”
Everyone was silent as the Besht paused for a moment, took a sip of water and continued. “Well, that was yesterday. But just now heard another heavenly decree that my blessing to this woman will be fulfilled, and she will have a son… but, because I defied the will of HaShem, my punishment is… that I lost any chance of going to heaven.
And that is why I am happy!
Now I can serve G-d with no ulterior motives. That is a reason to rejoice!!! And he again stood and began singing and dancing.
This week’s portion is devoted mostly to describing the rewards that G-d will give to those who are faithful to His Torah and the punishments that are in store for those that are not. Interestingly enough, however, there is no mention here of Heaven or Hell.
Here the Torah should describe the eternal pleasures or infinite tortures that HaShem can mete out to whomever He sees fit…. But it doesn’t, nor does it anywhere else. (Although the belief in heaven and hell is one of the 13 principles of Jewish faith.)
There are those who explain (Rambam Hil. Tshuva Chap.9) that the Torah is only assuring us here that G-d controls the world and can remove or make physical obstacles to serving Him. But that doesn’t explain why in the entire the Five books of Moses it doesn’t mention the afterlife at all!
[In fact there once was even a ‘reform’ movement in Judaism called the Tzadukim that, among other deviations, did not believe in heaven or hell because of this reason; that it is not written explicitly in the Torah]
The answer to this question is:
In Judaism this physical world is more important than the highest heaven.
The spiritual, to be sure, is very important, without it there is there is no ‘soul’ or meaning (and with no meaning there is no enthusiasm)…but this physical world is the essence.
It’s something like building a house:
We need ideas, blueprints, permits, machinery, workers, money but these are all of secondary importance, the main thing is the final house.
Similarly in the creation of the world:
G-d made the ‘heavens’ or ‘dimensions’ of ‘Atzilut’, ‘Briah’, ‘Yetzera’ and ‘Assia’, complete with ‘spherot’, myriads of Angels, and souls as explained in the mystical Kabalistic books, but these are of secondary importance, the main thing is this physical world.
That is why the Torah and its Mitzvot were given only in this world.
Only here is it possible to SERVE G-d and only here can one do ‘Tshuva’ (loosely trans. repentance) and change oneself completely, even in one instant.
Here is where the Holy Temple was built, and it is here that G-d will be revealed permanently with the arrival of the Moshiach.
In Heaven, for sure, we can receive infinite spiritual rewards and indescribable pleasures… but it is only pleasure that WE RECEIVE.
In THIS world we actually can GIVE HASHEM pleasure (as Rashi explains in Vayikra 1:9)!
Also, Heaven is only a temporary state. Souls remain in heaven for a limited amount of time.
In the ‘Raising of the dead’, however, all the souls of the departed will leave their residences in Heaven and once again be clothed in bodies… in THIS world…forever. Then we will all SEE that this world is really higher than heaven, rather than just reading about it.
But a person can also make a mistake and think that; if so, the most important thing is to succeed in this world and that this is the sign that G-d is pleased with him.
There is a story in the Talmud that disproves this: Once the pupils of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi (see our essay on lag B’Omer) saw an alumnus that had become rich, and suddenly they too desired riches. ‘What is wrong with wealth?’ they reasoned. But their intentions were not as completely pure as is befitting such holy men. Rabbi Shimon took them to a huge valley, which suddenly, before their eyes, filled with millions of gold coins. “Take!” Said Rabbi Shimon “But know that what you take will detract from your portion in the world to come!” Needless to say, no one took anything.
That is how our section begins, “If ‘B’Chukosai’ (in my statutes) you will walk”
G-d is trying to tell us that we should not just DO the commandments, but rather we must WALK i.e. move forward and upward, and never stay in one place and be content with our spiritual level.
And He is telling us HOW to do this as well; we must treat all the commandments as Chukim.
There are three types of commandments. Two of them: ‘Mishpatim’, which are logical and humane (such as not killing or stealing) and ‘Adut’, which are religious (like the Holidays or Tefillin and Mezuza) are not essentially unique to Judaism.
But the third type, Chukim, such as Shatnez or milk-and- meat, have no logical or even religious reason, we do them only because G-d wants us to.
So G-d is telling us here that if we want joy, we should treat all the commandments like Chukim.
Even when we try to understand them we do it because understanding is also a commandment, but our real motivation should be ONLY because G-d wants us to do them.
Then we will begin to ‘WALK’; to move and rejoice in the service of HaShem.
And what WE RECEIVE in this world and even in the world-to-come will not be our main concern.
Here is story that illustrates this:A well-known Chabad Chassid, Rabbi Gurari, once sat together with two other types of Chassidim and each began to tell stories about miracles that his Rebbe did. One told several impressive stories about how his Rebbe healed the sick and even raised the dead. The other related how his Rebbe gave successful blessings for children, and wealth.
When Rabbi Gurari's turn came he announced, “I’ll tell you a real miracle story!”.
Once my Rebbe told me to invest all my money, over $50,000, in a particular business venture and when I did, I lost every penny!”
“Are you joking?” Asked the other Chassidim after a minute of shocked silent, “What type of miracle is that?!”
“The miracle,” answered Rabbi Gurari, “is that I remained a Chassid of the Rebbe.”
Copyright © 1999-2017 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.