HaRav Zev Leff: Parshas Behar-Bechukosai


Adapting to Imperfection

And if you shall say, what will we eat in the seventh year, for we have not planted or gathered in our grain [due to the restrictions Of shmittahl, I will appoint My blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will yield enough grain for the three year period [the year before the shmittah, the shmittah year, and the following year, until you can plant and reap the harvest] (Vayikra 25:20-21).

Sforno writes that the nature of Hashem’s miracle varied according to the quality of bitachon (faith in Hashem) shown by the Jewish people. If their bitachon was great, the miracle was that a year’s quantity sufficed for three years. If not, they received three years quantity of grain in the sixth year. The first was a hidden miracle; the second obvious to everyone.

Why, we might wonder, did the lower level of bitachon evoke the more obvious miracle, i.e., the threefold quantity of grain?

The traditional sources explain that Hashem avoids doing open miracles. Such miracles seem to imply that the natural order Hashem created, and which He described as “very good,” is not complete and needs adjustment from time to time.

In reality, there is no difference between nature and miracles both are expressions of the Divine will. The splitting of the Sea,

Chazal say, was already decreed from the creation of the world. It and other miracles are merely natural events which occur infrequently; nature is miraculous events which occur regularly.

From our vantage point, however, miracles appear as exceptions to the natural order. As such, they can diminish God’s honour in our eyes by implying an imperfection in His creation. Therefore, we do not pray for miracles or derive benefit from the products produced by miracles.

The hidden miracle of being satiated with smaller portions, so that one year’s yield would last for three years, however, did not serve the needs of those whose bitachon was weak. Seeing a normal yield in the sixth year, such a person would grow worried that his crops were insufficient for the coming years. He needed to see the grain for three years in front of him to feel secure.

And now for the amazing point: Hashem responded to that need to see the grain in front of him, and provided a threefold quantity of grain, even though the need to do so was engendered by a lack of faith and trust in Hashem. How astounding is Hashem’s kindness.

On the eve of our conquest of Eretz Yisrael, Hashem told Moshe (Devarim 7:22) that He would destroy the Canaanite inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael slowly, lest the land be left desolate and wild animals multiply. Rashi adds that if Bnei Yisrael had performed Cod’s will they would have had nothing to fear from wild animals. Yet Hashem knew they would sin and accordingly extended the conquest over a number of years. Again Hashem acted in the manner that would make it easiest for us in light of our sins.

Rabbi Chaim’of Volozhin once asked the Vilna Gaon what the beraisa means when it says that one of the attributes of Hashem is the fact that He is somayach bechelko, content with His portion. By definition, Hashem is complete unto Himself an’ d needs nothing. The Gaon explained that the Jewish people are referred to as Hashem’s portion. Although He would like us to be on a higher level, nevertheless He is content with us at whatever level He finds us.

We are enjoined to imitate God in all His ways, and the manner in which He relates to us contains many valuable lessons in how we should relate to one another. Many times our friends, spouses, or children are not on the level we would like them to be. We must learn from our Creator that despite our hopes for their growth, we must accept the reality of the present situation and deal with them at their present level. With ourselves, too, we must not confuse our aspiration for higher levels with our present level. We must accommodate our present level and that of others, whilw always striving for greater and greater perfection.

In this way, we will steadily climb the ladder of perfection towards the day that Hashem will grant us total perfection.

Ona’as Devarim – Truth and Falsehood

In addition to the prohibition of ona’as mamon, cheating one’s fellow man monetarily by overcharging or underpaying, the Torah also prohibits various forms of ona’as devarim, verbal deceit. Ona’as devarim takes many forms: inviting someone for a meal knowing that he will be out-of-town on that day; inquiring about the price of merchandise when one has no intention of buying, but only wishes to compare it to the price of an item already purchased; reminding a ba’al teshuvah of his previous sins; telling a person who is suffering misfortune that he is being punished for his sins.

In the first two cases of ona’as devarim, the element of deceit is relatively clear-cut. By inviting someone knowing they cannot accept, one creates a sense of reciprocal obligation on their part. Similarly, posing as a would-be customer causes the merchant to waste his time and effort in anticipation of a would-be sale. But where is the deceit in the last two examples? Reminding a ba’al teshuvah of his sins may cause him pain, but how is it cheating or deceitful? And if someone tells his friend who is suffering that he is being punished for his sins, there is certainly an element of truth in the statement.

To understand how all those examples are linked, we must refine our understanding of ona’ah (oppression). With respect to ona’as mamon the essence of the sin is not the monetary loss caused another since that is already subsumed in the prohibition on theft. Rather the essence of the sin is the creation of a false impression about the value of the object being sold

it is difficult to see what false impression is created by taunting a ba’al teshuvah or a ger with reminders of their past, yet it is there. Chazal tell us that a convert is like a new-born person and he is no longer connected to his past. So, too, a ba’al teshuvah totally divorces himself from his past sins; they are not only forgotten but can even be transformed to merit through teshuvah. Hence, one who reminds these individuals of their pasts, as if it is still part of them, creates a false impression that causes them pain.

Similarly, telling someone who is suffering that his suffering is a result of his sins may falsely imply that he is not an essentially righteous person, and that his apparent fear of God is but a pretence, when in fact, his suffering is the result of specific shortcomings which in no way define his spiritual level.

Truth is the seal of Hashem. Truth is real and enduring; falsehood fleeting. Reality bears Hashem’s seal, for He can be discerned within it. One who distorts reality, thereby hides Hashem. For that reason liars are among those who will not receive the face of the Shechinah. God cannot be found or identified in falsehood.

The word emes (truth) represents the totality of existing reality. Its letters span the entire aleph-bais , aleph being the first letter, mem the middle letter, and sav the final letter. All the letters stand firmly on a base or two legs. By contrast sheker (falsehood) is composed of three letters grouped together at the end of the aleph-bais and which stand either on a point or one leg. As Chazal say, sheker has no legs. It is neither substantive nor enduring.

The attribute of emes is personified by Yaakov. For this reason Satan chose to wrestle with Yaakov and not with Yitzchak or Avraham. Avraham personified chesed (kindness) and Yitzchak personified avodah (service to Hashem)’ Satan knew that as long as emes was not firmly established in the world, he could live with chesed and avodah. Without emes, chesed can be distorted into sexual immorality and avodah into idolatry. Once emes is firmly established, however, then chesed is true chesed and avodah is true avodah. The Telzer Rosh HaYeshivah, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, zt’l, explained the words of Chazal, “The study of Torah is equal [literally opposite] all of them,” as follows: To be sure that our mitzvos are truly mitzvos, they must be placed opposite Torah learning, i.e., appraised in light of the emes of Torah, lest they be corrupted into distortions of chesed or avodah.

We live in the period of ikvesa d’meshicha, the last stage of exile, about which Chazal say, “Truth will be missing.” The Yerushalmi says that when people lie, nature follows suit. Clouds form, and it appears that rain will fall, but no rain falls. Today a person can arise in the morning and dress in imitation cotton clothing, put on imitation leather shoes, sit on an imitation wooden chair, eat a breakfast of imitation egg with imitation meat, salted with a salt substitute and washed down with fruit juice that contains no fruit. We live in a period where truth is lacking – hence the proliferation of synthetics and imitation, even in nature itself.

During Elul a milkman came to the Telzer Rav and confessed that he had been diluting the milk and cheating his customers. He sought a program of repentance. The Telzer Rav told him that the first–step was to immediately stop diluting the milk. A week later the milkman appeared before the Rav, obviously upset. “I have stopped diluting the milk as the Rav prescribed, and my business is suffering. People refuse to drink my milk. They say it doesn’t taste right.” One can become so used to sheker, that it appears to be emes. p>It is no wonder, then, that the Shelah HaKadosh emphasises that success in child raising and education must be founded on the attribute of truth. One must strive to inculcate in every Jewish child an unswerving respect for the truth, which will create a foundation for proper conduct in all other areas.


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.