Thoughts on Parashat Bechukotai

Studying is Not Enough:  The beginning of Parashat Bechukotai describes the type of observance of the Torah that will result in meriting the great blessings listed subsequently.  “If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them” (Leviticus 26:3).  The rabbis of the Midrash explain that since the second part of the verse is clearly talking about actually observing the commandments, “walk in My statutes” refers to laboring in Torah study (see Rashi).  Is “laboring” in Torah study meant to be taken literally?  If it would merely be a poetic or rhetorical way of referring to Torah study, the Torah would already be expressing a sufficiently novel idea.  It would be saying that studying the Torah is just as important, valuable, or meritorious as actually doing the mitzvot and would therefore make the nation deserving of the blessings listed in the Parasha.  Another Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah), however, makes it clear that labor is indeed meant literally.  It states that the Almighty decreed that forgetfulness be part of human nature because if we would never forget, we could just study Torah and not need any labor.  Studying Torah is enough to learn facts and information.  To understand, to analyze and to integrate, one must labor.  This message seems especially important in our time.  One rabbi already remarked in the middle of the Twentieth Century – way before Google, Wikipedia, and Kindle – that people confuse research with deep analysis and thoughtful insight.  If we understand things too quickly because we have already imbibed all of the facts and information – if we think that merely knowing something is understanding it – we risk losing the critical ability to think with nuance and depth.

Supernatural Victory:  One of the blessings in the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai describes the military strength that the Jewish people can receive in a time of war.  “And five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand; and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword” (Leviticus 26:8).  According to the usual rules of military engagement, the victorious side would need to have greater numbers in its army to chase away its enemy.  If it did not have the advantage of greater numbers, it could still potentially win if its army compensated by fighting with greater skill or strategy.  This would become less and less likely as the numeric disadvantage grew.  The blessing mentioned here promises that even when the Jews are severely lacking man power – the Torah’s example is even when there are twenty enemy soldiers for each Jewish soldier – the Almighty’s assistance will assure victory.  The second example the verse gives of an otherwise unlikely victory, however, is puzzling.  It says one hundred of us will be able to chase away ten thousand enemies.  According to the ratio of the first example, one hundred should only be able to chase away two thousand – each Jew would chase twenty enemies.  If we will be blessed with victory even when there are one hundred enemy soldiers for each Jewish soldier, why does the Torah even mention the smaller miracle of each person being able to disperse only twenty enemies?  Rashi, picking up on the inconsistent ratio, explains that it teaches the power of Jewish unity.  “The few that fulfill the Torah cannot be compared to the many that fulfill the Torah together.”  The Talmud comments that the load that one person can carry on his shoulder is only one third of what he can potentially carry together with a second person.  The colossal challenges that we face in our synagogues, communities, and as a nation require immense energy, insight, and resources.  To the extent that we are able to bear the load of these challenges together, the smaller and more manageable that load will become.

These thoughts are based on the classes of Rabbi Yeruchem Halevi Levovitz.  A version of this post appears in this week’s Jewish News.

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