Toiling in Torah
lf you walk in My statutes… (Vayikra 26:3)..
Walking in Hashem’s statutes, say Chazal, refers to toiling in Torah. Upon that toil, Hashem’s blessing is contingent. And so, too, do the curses follow from the failure to strive in the study of Torah.
Chazal (Nedarim 81a) tell us that Eretz Yisrael was lost and the Jewish people were exiled because they failed to make the proper blessing prior to learning. Ran, quoting Rabbeinu Yonah, explains that the blessing is on the toil and effort that one must put into Torah, and when that is lacking, churban (destruction) results.
The first question that arises is: How is effort in Torah learning hinted to in “walk[ing] in My statutes?” Since when does “walking” imply toil and effort?
Chazal tell us that the Torah is an elixir of life to those who approach it as “rightists,” and a poison to those who approach it as “leftists.” Rashi defines “rightist” as one who uses his strong right arm to delve into the Torah and discover its secrets (Shabbos 88b). One must delve deeply into the Torah to uncover its true meaning, to discover Hashem, Who is the neshamah of the Torah. Without effort and toil, one gains at best a superficial understanding of Torah, which, in turn, leads to a superficial and shallow observance of its mitzvos. On the other hand, one who exerts all his efforts gains the fear of Heaven that is the very essence of Torah.
We are exhorted to literally walk after God, to walk in His footsteps. Toiling in Torah is discovering the footsteps of God, theimmutable laws of spiritual nature that contain the essence of Cod’s attributes. By subjugating his mind to the demands of the Torah, and rejecting all that is superficial and simplistic, the student of Torah finds Hashem in the Torah and is able to emulate Him.
The antithesis of toiling in Torah is “If you will not listen to Me” – if you fail to hear Me in the Torah. You think you possess Torah, but it is Torah which is empty of Me. That type of Torah can be easily distorted and lead even to idolatry, immorality and murder.
The prophetic warning concerning our future failings contains the following sequence of events. God will send an enemy to invade Eretz Yisrael, and the Jews will gather within the protective walls of Jerusalem. The encircled Jews will fall prey to a plague from which many will die. Since it is prohibited to leave a corpse in Jerusalem, the bodies will have to be taken out the city, and in this manner the people will he delivered into the hands of the enemy (see Rashi to Vayikra 26:25).
This sequence is at first glance astounding. The prohibition of leaving a corpse in Jerusalem is rabbinic. Even had it been a Torah law, the danger to life involved in burying outside the walls would have taken precedence over the rule that burial is forbidden in Jerusalem. Another problem: the generation the Torah is describing is one in which murder, idolatry and immorality were rampant. Would people steeped in such crimes risk their lives to fulfil a rabbinic law?
But that is just the point of the rebuke. When one studies Torah superficially, one’s perspective is necessarily fragmented and distorted and his emphasis will be askew. What will he lacking is a view of mitzvos as part of a totality and in the light of the totality.
A superficial view of Torah can lead to a disproportionate emphasis on even those things which are in fact of the greatest importance in the Torah’s view, such as the holiness of Jerusalem. That holiness, however, not only does not mandate that one give up his life to avoid any corpses remaining in Jerusalem; it expressly forbids it, for the value of life takes precedence. Such distortions are inevitable without an overarching view of the unity of Torah.
The reward for toiling in Torah is harmony in the natural world culminating in the blessing of shalom, peace. Torah scholars, say Chazal, increase peace in the world by harmonising the physical and spiritual worlds through their understanding of the Torah’s secret foundation. Conversely, the punishment of not toiling in Torah is a natural world gone haywire, where nothing goes right. That is the spiritual result of the failure to discover Hashem’s footsteps in the Torah and to walk in His ways – the consequence of viewing Torah as a series of unconnected “do’s” and “dont’s.” Without toil, Torah is seen not as a way of life but as an intrusion into life. And the punishment is that one’s life is intruded into by a multitude of curses.
Putting Misfortune into Perspective
There is a positive commandment in the Torah to cry out and sound the trumpets for any calamity that befalls the community … and this is an aspect of repentance, for when a misfortune occurs and they cry out and sound the alarm, all will realise that it was because of their sinful actions that evil befell them, and this will cause the calamity to subside. However, if they do not cry out … but rather say this is but an act of nature, and this misfortune is but an accident, a random occurrence, this is a manner of cruelty and causes them to continue their sinful ways, and this calamity will lead to further misfortune. This is what is written in the
Torah,”If you will walk contrary to Me, then I will walk contrary to you also in fury” (Vayikra 26:27-28), which means, When I bring upon you misfortune in order to awaken you to teshuvah, and you say that it is just an act of nature, I will increase upon you such acts of nature (Rambam, Hilchos Taaniyos 1~3).
In need of explanation is why Rambam describes the practice of attributing calamities that befall us to chance acts of nature as being ,,a manner of cruelty” rather than simply as heresy.
In order to understand Rambam’s meaning, we must first consider another Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 12:1,5). In the time of Mashiach, says Rambam, the world will follow its natural course and no changes in nature will take place. There will be no famine or war, no jealousy or competition; luxuries will be plentiful. Furthermore, sickness will be non-existent and people will live hundreds of years.
How can Rambam both say that no changes will occur in nature, and describe a world seemingly so far removed from our own? Rambam, it would seem, means that our world is unnatural. The natural world – the one Hashem intended – is the world he is describing.
Imagine a hospital for crippled people which hires others in wheelchairs for every position: the doctors, nurses, maintenance personnel are all cripples. A crippled child born in that hospital, who never ventured out of its premises, would grow up thinking that the natural state of man is to be confined to a wheelchair. Upon meeting a person who could walk f really, he would assume that he was witnessing something supernatural.
So too was Gan Eden the original blueprint for the world. Due, however, to Adam and Chavah’s sin, the tragedies and calamities that we view today as natural became commonplace. To us the original state of nature seems supernatural, and the world of imperfection and misery natural.
Hashem is a God of kindness, and His sole intention in creating the world was to bestow everlasting good upon man. His real desire is to provide man with the ideal environment within which to earn the World to Come. When man sins, however, Hashem brings upon him misfortune to awaken him to repent and to atone for his sin. Misfortune and calamity are thus functions of God’s mercy.
If, however, one views human suffering as the result of chance, purposeless events, God becomes, in his eyes, not a kind, benevolent Creator, but a cruel One Who created a world full of needless, meaningless suffering. Since we are enjoined to emulate Hashem’s attributes, one who views Him as cruel and arbitrary will act accordingly. That’s why Rambam depicts this philosophy as a manner of cruelty.”
On Yom Tov, we recite in our Mussaf prayers, “Because of our sins have we been exiled from our land.” Let us strengthen our understanding that the tragedies that beset us as individuals and as a nation, are all expressions of Hashem’s desire to awaken us to our imperfection, to chastise us as a merciful parent chastises a child he cares for and wants to divert from a self-destructive path. If we do, we will merit to once again see the true natural world of perfection.