Parshat Bechukotai: Rain

“If you follow My laws and are careful to keep My commandments, I will provide you with rain at the proper time, so that the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit.” (VaYikra 26:3-4)

The Torah promises us that our observance of the commandments will be rewarded in this world. The Almighty will sustain us and provide us with material well-being.

This pasuk is representative of many such assurances throughout the Torah. These assurances seem to contradict the famous dictum of our Sages. The Sages teach that there is no reward for the performance of the mitzvot in this life.[1] Clearly, the Torah indicates that we will receive material reward for observing the laws of the Torah!

Maimonides deals extensively with this issue in his Mishne Torah. He explains that the Sages did not intend to deny that the Almighty provides for us in response to our observance of commandments. The Sages recognized that the Torah unequivocally asserts that we will be blessed or punished in this world as a consequence of our actions. Instead, the Sages wished to teach us that the benefits we receive in this world are not the ultimate reward for the performance of the mitzvot. The true reward is the eternal existence of the soul in Olam HaBah. Similarly, the ultimate punishment is not suffering in this material world. The ultimate consequence of evil is forfeiture of the eternal existence of the soul after death.

Maimonides posses a question on this thesis. If the ultimate reward is eternal spiritual existence – the survival of ones’ sacred soul after death, why does the Torah promise material rewards?

Maimonides explains that the Almighty assists us in achieving our aims. If we pursue a spiritual existence, Hashem will help us achieve this goal. He will remove the distractions that deter us from achieving our objective. He will assist us in meeting our material needs. We will be able to devote more of our time and energy to spiritual development.

Similarly, one who is immersed in a material existence will be frustrated by Hashem. The material pleasures have seduced this individual. These pleasures will be taken away. Maimonides further explains that in submerging oneself in the material world, a person chooses the passing physical existence over the eternal spiritual existence. Through denying this person the blessings of material success, the individual will be forced to concentrate on the necessities of physical existence. This individual will is deprived of the opportunity to develop spiritually. The individual is condemned to the consequences of his or her decision. The opportunity to develop spiritually has been abandoned and lost.[2]

Nonetheless, every person has the opportunity to repent. Through reasserting ones’ desire to develop spiritually, the individual can reclaim the Almighty’s blessings. Hashem will help the repentant person achieve ones’ spiritual aims.[3]

“And I will destroy your idols and your sun gods. I will let your corpses rot on the remains of your idols. I will grow tired of you.” (VaYikra 26:30)

The parasha describes the curses that the nation will experience if it abandons the Torah. The Torah deals with the extreme case. It describes the terrible curses that will befall Bnai Yisrael if they adopt the heathen practices and pagan worship of the surrounding nations. Our pasuk is included in the account of these curses. It is obvious that our passage is difficult to understand. The passage foretells the destruction of the pagan idols worshipped by the people. This is not a curse! Why is this included among the curses for abandoning the Torah?

Chizkuni acknowledges that this passage is not part of the curse. The pasuk describes the destruction of idolatry! However, he does not explain the actual intent of the pasuk and the reason for its inclusion within the narrative of the curses.[4]

Gershonides responds to this issue. He also begins with the premise that the destruction of idols is not a curse. He explains that the passage is making two points. First, the Torah is telling Bnai Yisrael that ultimately the nation’s association with idolatry will end. Ideally, this will occur because the nation will heed the warnings provided by Hashem. However, if the fascination with idolatry does not end through repentance, it will be forcibly terminated. Mighty enemies will invade the land. These armies will destroy the idols and pagan temples cherished by the nation. The message is that the nation will abandon idolatry. However, Bnai Yisrael must make a choice. The people can repent and voluntarily reject their idols. The alternative is invasion and the destruction of these idols and temples through the devastation of the land.

Second, the pasuk describes the death of the idol worshippers in the presence of the very idols they adulated. What is the message in this terrible image?

The Torah describes a graduated series of punishments. Abandonment of the Torah and adoption of idolatrous practices will result in consequences that progress in severity. Hopefully, early in the process, the nation will realize that its sufferings are a chastisement for its iniquity. However, it is possible that the nation will attribute its suffering to the vagaries of nature and continue to turn to idolatry as a source of rescue and protection. The Torah forewarns that this reaction can only result in a single outcome. The idolaters that refuse to recognize the authenticity of the Almighty’s rebuke will be destroyed in the presence of the very idols they relied upon. This will demonstrate the falsity and impotence of these idols.[5]

“And I will remember, on their behalf, the covenant I made with the original ancestors whom I brought forth from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations to be a Lord to them. I am Hashem.” (VaYikra 26:45)

Parshat Bechukotai discusses the rewards that Bnai Yisrael will receive through observance of the Torah. The Parasha also discusses the consequences of ignoring the commandments. These consequences include exile and suffering. This section ends with a promise from the Almighty. Hashem will never forget His children. Even if Bnai Yisrael is exiled to a strange land, Hashem will not abandon His people. Eventually redemption will come. The people will be brought back to the Holy Land. This promise ends with the phrase, “I am Hashem.”

Sforno comments on this closing phrase that Hashem does not change. The suffering of Bnai Yisrael is not caused by an alteration of the Creator’s ways. Instead, we endure affliction as a result of our own degeneration. With our repentance, the Meshiach will come. Then G-d’s design will be fulfilled.[6]

Sforno is responding to a very basic issue. How can Hashem allow His chosen people to endure tragic suffering and exile? Does this suffering represent abandonment by Hashem of His nation? Sforno responds that the Creator’s essence and will are constant. However, our attitudes and behaviors change. Our iniquity requires a response and consequence. Our suffering is not a result of abandonment. It is an expression of Divine chastisement.

Maimonides outlines the thirteen basic principles of the Torah. He explains that one of these fundamental principles is conviction in the ultimate advent of a Messianic era.[7] Why does Maimonides consider this conviction to be a foundation of Judaism?

Based on Sforno’s comments, Maimonides’ position can be understood. The concept of the Messianic era implies a Divine unchanging design regarding the affairs of the world. The Jewish people and humanity will experience periods of affliction and suffering. This does not mean that Hashem has abandoned humanity or that His will changes. Instead, we proceed upon a path to a predetermined end. This end is the coming of the Meshiach. Our decisions to do good or evil influences the pace of our adventure. Nonetheless, the Meshiach will arrive.

“These are the commandments that Hashem commanded Bnai Yisrael through Moshe at Mount Sinai.” (VaYikra 27:34)

Our Sages learn an important lesson from this passage. The Torah states that these are the mitzvot. Only Moshe was empowered to reveal the Torah through prophecy. Other prophets cannot alter the Torah through prophecy.

Maimonides discusses this restriction at length in his Mishne Torah. He explains that the Torah is permanent. It cannot be augmented or revised though prophecy. [8] He adds that prophecy cannot be used to decide legal questions. Instead, the rules of Halacha must be applied to solve any legal question. For example, there is a famous dispute between Rashi and Rabbaynu Tam regarding the sections of the Torah in the teffilin. If a prophet would claim that the Almighty revealed to him that Rashi’s opinion is correct, we would reject this ruling. Furthermore, we assume that this person is a false prophet.[9]

It is interesting that Maimonides does not quote our passage. Instead, he cites various other passages. The pasuk he most often quotes is found in Sefer Devarim. That pasuk tells us that the Torah is no longer in the heavens.[10] The Sages understood the pasuk to teach that the heavens or Hashem are no longer a valid source for Halacha. Only the Sages, through the rules of Halacha, can resolve issues of law.

Lechem Mishne notes that Maimonides does not cite our passage. He explains that Maimonides will often quote the passage that best reflects the position he is discussing. He does not always refer to the passage most often cited by the Sages. In our case, Maimonides maintained that the passage he quotes – that the Torah is no longer in the heavens – better reflects his position.[11] However, Lechem Mishne does not explain the reason Maimonides preferred this passage.

Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel, in translating our passage, inserts a phrase. “These are the commandments that Hashem commanded to Moshe. It is not possible to add anything new to them.” This addition reflects the comments of our Sages on this passage. However, there is a significant difference. Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel does not say that a prophet cannot add to the Torah. Instead, he explains the Torah cannot be augmented – by anyone. It should be noted that even the Sages must adhere to this rule. All laws created by the Sages must relate to a mitzvah in the Torah.

We can now understand Maimonides’ reasoning. Our passage essentially asserts that the Torah cannot be altered. The passage does not expressly deal with prophecy. Let us assume a prophet decides a legal matter on the basis of prophecy. This issue is not clearly discussed by our passage. Nonetheless, Maimonides maintains that prophecy cannot be used in this manner. In order to support this principle, Maimonides quotes the passage that the Torah is no longer in the heavens. This passage indicates that prophecy is not a valid tool in deciding Halacha. The passage includes any application of prophecy to Halacha. The prophet cannot reveal a new mitzvah. Neither can the prophet use prophecy to decide legal matters.[12]

 

[1] Mesechet Kiddushin 39b.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 9:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 7:6-7.

[4] Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Vakikra, 26:30.

[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p 389.

[6] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 26:45.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 9:1.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 9:4.

[10] Sefer Devarim 30:11.

[11] Rav Avraham di Boton, Lechem Mishne, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 9:1.

[12] See Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, Torat Neveim, chapter 1.