If You Will Walk in My Statutes
Special Issue of Tradition:
Essays on the Thought and Scholarship of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Immanuel Meyer
Translated by Kaeren Fish
The Conclusion of Sefer Vayikra
At the beginning of our parasha we read the blessings that God promises to Am Yisrael:
“If you will follow My statutes, and observe My commandments and perform them, then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time, and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely…” (Vayikra 26:3-5)
This is the pinnacle of Divine blessing: the threshing will reach the vintage, and the vintage will reach the sowing time. The Torah describes a situation of peace, eating to the full, and blessings of fertility. In addition, the Torah emphasizes God’s presence amongst the nation:
“And I will set My Sanctuary among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (vv. 11-12)
Ramban, commenting on these verses, elaborates:
“This contains one of the secrets of our Torah … these blessings, although they are miraculous, are among the hidden miracles that the Torah is full of.”
Seemingly, Sefer Vayikra should have ended at this point, at the end of the blessings. It seems appropriate that the Sefer that begins with man’s drawing close to God – “If any man of you brings an offering to God…” (Vayikra 1:2), should conclude with the climax of this vision: God’s presence resting amongst the nation.
However, the Sefer does not end here, and we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of the curses. Whether the sins of Bnei Yisrael have their root in following false gods, or arise from human weakness, or from a view of God’s control of the world as “arbitrary” – the sins ultimately appear, and Bnei Yisrael are severely punished by God.
These curses are so fearful, and the bond with God deteriorates to such an extent, that even when the curses come to an end, they do not end because of an improvement in the behavior of Bnei Yisrael. God decides to desist from punishing them by virtue of the merit of the forefathers alone!
“Then I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember, and I will remember the land… But I will remember for their sakes the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God; I am the Lord.” (ibid. 42-45)
This is a truly frightening thought: the text is speaking of the same merit of the forefathers that we invoke to this day, every day, in our prayers; the same merit of the forefathers that underpins many of the Selichot we recite during the month of Elul; the same merit of the forefathers that was our deliverance in times past.
The sense arising from the verses is that were it not for this merit of the forefathers, we would have no hope of survival. When the Gemara teaches (Shabbat 55a) that “the merit of the forefathers has been used up,” the Tosafot immediately clarify: “Rabbeinu Tam said: The merit of the forefathers is finished, but the covenant of the forefathers is not over, as it is written…”
What leads us to such appalling deterioration? Why, at the end of an entire Sefer that is entirely devoted to sanctity and purity, addressed to a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, do we sink to such depths? Obviously, the situation is complex, and we cannot discuss every aspect of it here. However, we might say that the picture as a whole arises from a single, fundamental root: mankind’s free will.
We can understand this better by comparing the scenario to that of a parent and child. One of the challenging aspects of education is watching a child making mistakes. The parent wants to correct the child and guide him or her, but knows and understands that sometimes the best and most effective way for the child to learn is through trial and error. The parent therefore stands by and watches the child making one mistake after the next, and refrains from intervening. In this way, the parent allows the child to exercise free will. Likewise, God allows us free will and does not intervene when we make mistakes.
Indeed, our freedom of choice often leads us to stumble. Other than Sefer Shemot, which concludes on a high note with God’s Presence in the Mishkan, each of the other Chumashim ends in a downfall. Sefer Vayikra concludes with the curses and punishments listed in our parasha. Sefer Bamidbar, which opens with great ceremony, describing the camp of Israel arranged in splendid order around the Mishkan, arrives at a turning point, marked by two upside down letters “nun”, and then describes a deterioration in which one sin follows the next, until the debacle of Ba’al Pe’or. The end of Sefer Devarim, too, brings the lengthy and terrible punishment set forth in Parashat Haazinu.
All this proceeds from free will – that fundamental element that represents the difference between man and animals. Man, with his free will, faces choices at every juncture in his life. Often, what influences his decision at a certain point is his level of personal involvement.
Let us consider two examples. If a person is deliberating whether to donate some of his money to a poor person, a profound sense of connection and identification with that person will be decisive; it will cause him to reach into his pocket and share. His inner involvement has influenced his choice.
Similarly, when a person deliberates whether to donate to Torah institutions, his inner connection to Torah, its study and its scholars will cause him to feel obligated in this regard. Here again, the inner involvement plays a key role.
Sefer Vayikra begins, in fact, with free choice that contains something of this inner involvement, prompting a person to bring a burnt offering:
“And [the Lord] called to Moshe and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to Bnei Yisrael, and say to them: If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, of the cattle shall you bring your offering, of the herd, and of the flock.” (Vayikra 1:1-2)
A person decides to bring a burnt offering in order to express his closeness to God. Attention should be paid, in this context, to a most significant difference between a meal offering and an animal offering. A meal offering involves only minimal cost; it requires no significant investment. Hence, the real message of the meal offering must find expression in the emotional realm, in the sense of giving and volunteerism.
An animal sacrifice is different. Here, a person must spend a significant amount of money, and may think that that will suffice. To his mind, the very investment testifies clearly to his intentions, and therefore he is not required to give any emotional expression to his inner state. Many of the prophets emphasize the problematic nature of the sacrifices, and especially for this reason. A person spends so much on his sacrifice that he feels no need to devote attention and energy to his thoughts and feelings, to the connection – which is, in fact, the essence and most important part of the sacrifice.
As we know, Kayin chose to bring a sacrifice, but did not invest himself in it at the appropriate level. We may assume that if he had known how the story ends, he certainly would have paid much more attention and taken greater care. However, we might ask – had he done so, would his sacrifice then have equaled that brought by Hevel? Certainly not. The monetary investment must be an expression of what is going on inside the person’s heart, in his relations with God; it is not merely a matter of how big, how ostentatious, the sacrifice itself is!
This, then, is the importance of inner involvement, which accompanies and influences everything that a person does. This inner connection must be present in every area: in the relations between man and God, and between man and his neighbor; in prayer and in Torah study; in giving charity and in performing acts of kindness. The importance of this goes beyond elevating the person’s Divine service; it is the most basic level of morality.
Yaakov describes to Lavan the efforts he has expended in shepherding:
“And Yaakov was angry and strove with Lavan, and Yaakov answered and said to Lavan: What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued after me?... For twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your she-goats did not cast their young, and the rams of your flock I have not eaten. That which was torn of beasts I did not bring to you, I bore the loss of it; you required it of my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was: in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes…” (Bereishit 31:36-42)
Yaakov could have invested slightly less effort, and avoided the frost and the drought; at worst, a sheep here or there would have been lost. But Yaakov did not permit himself that. He invested himself at the highest level that he was able to. The Rambam, at the end of Hilkhot Sekhirut, cites Yaakov’s dedication:
“Similarly, a worker is obligated to work with all his strength, for the righteous Yaakov said, ‘I served your father with all my strength’ (Bereishit 31:7). For this he was granted reward even in this world, as it is written, ‘And the man became prodigiously wealthy’ (Bereishit 30:43).”
The title “righteous” (tsaddik) that is uniquely awarded to Yaakov here arises from his moral dedication in working for Lavan, finding expression in his very high level of inner involvement.
One of the areas in which we are required to invest ourselves fully is Torah study. I recently heard a discussion among some yeshiva students who were debating an interesting question: which is preferable – a Torah scholar who sits in the yeshiva, investing minimal effort, but attaining fantastic achievements thanks to his innate abilities; or a scholar who invests all his effort and energy in study, but has little to show for it and does not achieve any significant level of learning?
Obviously, the answer to the question depends on the aim – what is it that we seek? If we are choosing a doctor, our main concern will be the candidate’s level of knowledge and professionalism; we are not interested in how hard he tried and what great efforts he invested during his years of study. However, in the realm of Torah what interests us is something else. What we are looking for here is the actual inner connection, the commitment and investment of self.
Our parasha opens with the verse, “If you will follow (literally, ‘walk in’) My statutes, and observe My commandments and perform them…” (Vayikra 26:3). The expression that the Torah chooses here is very interesting. The text does not speak of “obeying” or “listening” to God, but rather “walking in His statutes.” This suggests a following, a walking, that is deliberate, undertaken out of dedication and a wish to cleave to God. Accordingly, Rashi explains:
“‘If you will follow My statutes’ – perhaps this could mean observance of the commandments? But then the verse continues, ‘and observe My commandments’ – so performance of the commandments is already mentioned. How, then, do I fulfill the concept of ‘following My statutes’? It means toiling in Torah.”
The toil of Torah is what is what the verse is prescribing. The midrash describes Moshe ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. He was there for forty days, each day learning the Torah anew, and then forgetting it; learning again the next day, and then forgetting. Finally, after intense efforts over forty days, God gives him the Torah as a gift! And it is only by virtue of this gift that Moshe merited to know the Torah.
The toil of Torah, expressing our inner bond with it, is what we strive for. It is this that brings us blessing; more importantly, it is this that brings God’s Presence to dwell amongst Am Yisrael. Our aim is to invest ourselves in Torah, to dedicate ourselves to it. If we do this properly, we will be worthy, God willing, of the blessings set forth in the first part of our parasha, in all their detail.