A person should not say to himself: "I will observe the commandments of the Torah and engage myself in acquiring its wisdom so that I shall merit all the blessings written in it and so that I shall merit life in the World-to-Come. And I shall separate myself from all the transgressions the Torah warned about so that I should be safe from all the curses written in the Torah or so that I should not be cut off from life in the World-to-Come."
It is not proper to serve God in this manner, as one who serves in this fashion is worshipping God out of fear, and this is not the level of Divine service practiced by the prophets or the educated in Torah. The only people who serve God in this manner are the uneducated and ignorant and little children who are taught in this fashion to serve out of fear until their mind matures, and they will serve God out of love.
The one who serves God out of love, engages himself in Torah and its commandments and walks in the paths of wisdom not because of any worldly benefit; not because of his fear of suffering and evil or to inherit the good; he pursues the truth because it is the truth and the benefits will ultimately follow; this is a very high level which is not reached by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch Abraham, whom God described as "he who loved Me" for his service was only motivated by love. (Maimonides, "Laws of Repentance," 10:1-2)
But if God does not want to be served out of fear, why does He give us such an overwhelming list of dire consequences in the case of non-observance as set out in Parshat Bechukotai?
If you will not listen to Me, and you will not fulfill My commandments, if you despise My statutes and your souls loathe My laws ... thereby breaking My covenant, then I will do the same with you. I will impose terror upon you ... I will set my face against you and you will be defeated before your enemies ... (Leviticus 26:14-17)
In view of the above, how can a believer in Torah not serve God out of fear?
Doesn't this contradict the way we begin our morning service by reciting the Psalm: The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God -- good understanding to all who fulfill His commandments; His praise endures forever. (Psalms 111:10)
Let us begin our exploration with a story:
About a decade ago Israel had a Torah-observant Minister of Absorption who got himself into political hot water through the following incident. A large group of high school students were injured on a school trip when their bus collided with a train. If memory serves me, the incident took place on Shabbat. In the context of a radio interview the Minister expressed the thought that had these students been Shabbat-observant the particular accident in which they were injured certainly could not have happened and he went on to describe how the merit of Shabbat observance can protect a person from harm in general, and that one cannot violate Shabbat with impunity.
A veritable storm of violent protest descended on his head.
A veritable storm of violent protest descended on his head for daring to suggest a connection between Shabbat violation and the possibility of suffering accidents. So severe was the fallout that the survival of the reigning coalition was seriously threatened.
There is a very serious issue here. Why were people so upset? The minister was only expressing his beliefs after all. What was so offensive? We can explore the underlying issue by asking the following general question: Do actions have consequences or not?
The answer is not as obvious as it may seem at first. We all accept the fact that if we do not know how to swim we will drown in the river, or that if we happen to be nearby when a bomb explodes, there is a high degree of probability that we will be injured. But this has nothing to do with what we deserve, and is therefore not a consequence of anything we have done. Thus, while it is clear that had we slept in and therefore not taken the bus on which the terrorist planted his bomb, we would have escaped injury, it is obviously absurd to propose that the injury was an act of retaliation for not sleeping in and taking the bus in time to get to work or to school. Tragedies as far as we understand them are freaks of nature and not the consequences of moral decisions.
In fact, even when it comes to the correction of clear moral violations, such as the execution of murderers, there are many who are quite uneasy about the idea of deserved punishment. Revenge is a barbaric emotion and civilized people should not engage in practicing it. As far as anyone deserving moral punishment, the argument is put forward thus: None of us truly know what anyone else deserves and, it is at least possible that had we grown up in the murderer's socio-economic environment, we ourselves might have behaved in the same fashion. The most we can bring ourselves to say is that the murderer is a danger to society which, therefore, has a right to put him behind bars as a protective measure. We are unwilling to assign retributive consequences to moral behavior.
Of course, we do accept and assign responsibility for stupidity. If the person who knows that he can't swim jumps into the river and drowns, we are all willing to acknowledge that he is directly responsible for his own death. We also have no problem condemning the drunk driver who caused the fatal accident when he knew that he had had too much to drink to be able to drive safely. We find no sympathy for stupidity in our hearts. But we do not acknowledge moral turpitude as a sufficient cause of suffering.
According to our Torah portion, God takes a different view. His position is that moral actions must have consequences. If you sign a deal to observe the commandments you must accept the fact that you will not be able to violate them with impunity. Wrong moral decisions will bring "the wrath of God" down on your head.
But this is a very superficial understanding of our Torah portion. On a deeper level, the chief message of Parshat Bechukotai is that our view of what constitutes reality is extremely limited. In actuality, the expectation of being able to engage in morally incorrect actions without adverse consequences is exactly parallel to believing that you will not drown in the river even if you do not know how to swim. Both of these false expectations are far more attributable to the distorted interpretation of obvious reality that we diagnose as stupidity than they are to a lack of faith.
Thus, just as drowning in the river when you do not know how to swim cannot be characterized as punishment, neither can the suffering caused by moral turpitude. And just as the good health resulting from following a proper diet- exercise regimen is not a "reward" for good behavior but the natural consequence of wise living, neither does the prosperity that results from proper moral behavior constitute a reward.
THE REAL MESSAGE
The real message of Parshat Bechukotai is that the human-Divine relationship constitutes the bedrock of structured reality. When this relationship is in good shape the world naturally prospers because of the plentitude of Divine energy that circulates within it, and when it falters, the lack of Divine energy causes a diminishing of the resources necessary for the good life.
What is the correlation between moral actions and their consequences?
To understand the correlation between moral actions and their consequences, we have only to remember that we live in a created world. A created world is not assembled from pre-existing parts, as there is only absolute nothingness out there. The material of creation can only originate in the Creator Himself, who is immaterial by definition. All reality must necessarily be a function of the Divine will.
The Torah describes creation as a series of speeches, nothing more. When God turns His face away and pays less attention, as it were, there is less Divine will available and creation is simply diminished. This has nothing to do with reward and punishment, this is simply the natural consequence of how a world, which was founded and is sustained by pure will, must function.
This explanation can assist us in understanding a fascinating aspect of the way the so-called "curses" of Parshat Bechukotai are presented. The passage regarding the curses describes six different stages.
Each stage is preceded by an introductory statement to the effect that if the curses that have fallen on you till this point do not make you pay attention, than your travails will intensify in the next stage -- in the hope that the greater severity will bring about the desired effect and capture your attention.
In the first three of these stages God simply states that if you will do this, I will bring that on your head. But from the fourth stage introduces a concept referred to as keri meaning "chance." For example:
If despite these [catastrophes] you will not be chastised towards Me, and you behave casually [keri] with Me, then, I, too, will behave toward you with casualness [b'keri]. (Leviticus 26:23)
From this point onwards through the rest of the passage, this idea of "casualness" is a recurring theme. In later passages in the Torah, we find the related concept of God concealing His face:
But I will surely have concealed My face on that day because of all the evil that it did. (Deut. 31:18)
TREATING GOD "CASUALLY"
Referring to these verses in our Torah portion, Maimonides makes the following comment:
It is a positive commandment to scream [to God] and sound the trumpets for every public travail; as it is written, against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound short blasts of the trumpets (Numbers 10:9) that is to say, anything that pressures you whether it is famine, plague, locusts or the like, yell about it to God and sound the trumpets. This commandment comes under the umbrella of repentance -- for if the congregation screams to God and sounds the trumpets when a misfortune happens -- they will realize that it happened to them because of their evil deeds ... and this realization will bring about its removal. But if they fail to scream or sound the trumpets and say, instead, this misfortune that befell us has natural causes and struck us by chance -- this amounts to cruelty as it has the consequence of allowing people to remain stuck in their evil ways, and this will bring other misfortunes in its train, as it is written, you behave toward Me with casualness, I will behave toward you with a fury of casualness (Yad Hachazaka, "The Laws of Fasting," 1:1-3)
We are now in a position to understand the reason for the public fury directed at the Minister of Absorption.
Human beings want to walk around with the feeling that their moral behavior is free of natural consequences because this gives them the luxury of acting according to their own conscience. It is not that they feel any strong desire to behave immorally. Rather they want the freedom of being able to decide these issues on their own so that the credit for their "good" decisions belongs entirely to them, whereas their "bad" decisions are free of consequences.
Mankind wants to be in a win-win situation.
Mankind wants to be in a win-win situation. Their correct decisions, being free of self-interest, certainly entitle them to reward, whereas their wrong decisions carry no consequences.
But if moral behavior has attended consequences than behaving immorally would have to as well. Indeed, it should fall within the parameters of other sorts of behavior where the governing standard is stupidity. As already stated, there is no reward for avoiding stupidity and anyone who suffers through his own stupidity has only himself to blame.
According to the lesson of Parshat Bechukosai, the passage from Psalms quoted earlier becomes self explanatory:
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God...
The fear of God is not a lofty spiritual pinnacle but merely the beginning of wisdom and good understanding. Whoever doesn't fear God and believes that his actions have no consequences is truly stupid and does not understand the world in which he lives. Fearing God has nothing to do with reward and punishment. It comes under the heading of understanding versus insensitivity.
REWARD, PUNISHMENT AND SPIRITUALITY
So where do reward and punishment and spirituality enter the scheme of things?
Once again let us study our world. In our own world the mere avoidance of foolish behavior does not constitute a legitimate purpose in life. For life to have a purpose, the focus must be on achievement. One must pursue some good and not content himself with the mere avoidance of the pitfalls of stupidity.
Why should Divine service be any different? The mere avoidance of being in violation of the commandments cannot constitute the purpose of life. Such avoidance merely attests to elementary caution. Foolish behavior causes one to drown in the river. Avoiding it cannot be what God had in mind for human beings when He created the world.
This brings us to the second aspect of the commandments.
The word "Torah" in Hebrew connotes guidance and direction. The Maharal explains that the purpose of the Torah is to point the way to reaching God. The purpose of observance is not simply to teach us how to remain within the parameters of reality. The commandments are a way to ascend to a union with God.
The answer is love, as stated in the second part of Maimonides' introductory statement:
The one who serves God out of love, engages himself in Torah and its commandments and walks in the paths of wisdom not because of any worldly benefit, not because of his fear of suffering and evil or to inherit the good. He pursues the truth because it is the truth and the benefits will ultimately follow.
The mere avoidance of foolishness cannot serve as the positive purpose of life.
The person who serves God out of fear will avoid violating the commandments but will dedicate his life to pursuing the same things that his non-observant neighbors pursue. He will find his purpose in the pursuit of wealth or enjoyment or social prominence. After all, the mere avoidance of foolishness cannot serve as the positive purpose of life.
When the Minister of Absorption made the connection between the lack of Sabbath observance and susceptibility to accidents -- which is clearly there by-the-way -- he was not making some lofty spiritual statement that would alter life drastically even if it were widely accepted. The knowledge that one must fear God to avoid drowning in rivers unwittingly merely corrects the distorted vision of reality, but does not in itself serve to alter one's deepest values.
Only the person who serves God out of love will make the observance of the commandments the focus of his life. Only he will go out of his way to arrange his life in a manner that will allow him the opportunity to observe as many commandments as possible. It is he who is likely to devote his life to Torah study and good works so that all his waking activities will take place in the context of observing one of the commandments. He is the one who is after the truth for its own sake and makes the pursuit of this truth his life's goal. The one who observes out of fear is content with simply not falling into rivers where he can drown.
Paradoxically to find the area of reward and punishment, a person has to focus on pursuing the truth and forget about reward and punishment. Spiritual union with God must be the ultimate aim. As for the benefits? No need to worry. They will automatically follow.
Parshat Bechukotai (which begins Im bechuchotai telechu meaning "If you folllow my statutes") not only brings the Book of Leviticus to its end, but is in a sense ends the Torah (that is the part of the Torah which instructs). The Book of Numbers contains only a couple of commandments that are binding on subsequent generations and serves mainly as the history of the desert generation. The Book of Deuteronomy is based on the words of Moses, although God subsequently commanded him to include these words in the Torah.
Insofar as the Torah is mainly a book of instructions issued by God in the language of commandments, the Book of Leviticus is its climax and brings the book to an end. It is not surprising, therefore, that its final chapter be devoted to teaching the proper perspective of the observant life.
It turns out that to properly observe a commandment one must approach its observance from the dual perspective of love and fear. Without fear, the observance takes place in the wrong reality. Without love it has no positive purpose.
This accounts for something remarkable about our relationship with God. In human relations love and fear are mutually exclusive. The more I am afraid of someone, the less I love him, and the more love I feel toward someone the less I fear him. Yet we are commanded to love God with our entire heart and soul as we recite daily in the Shema prayer and we are also commanded to fear him as Moses declares, and now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you other than to fear the Lord your God (Deut. 10:12). Why isn't this a contradiction?
The answer is simple:
The fear of God determines the parameters of reality, but the love of God is the path to the sublime.