The Blessings of This World
Parashat Bechukotai marks the completion of Sefer Vayikra, as the book is solemnly sealed by an eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel. As His special nation, Israel is expected to follow the statutes of the Torah, to faithfully observe its teachings, and to fulfill its commands. In consequence, they are to enjoy God's copious blessings – rain in its due season, bountiful harvests, peace and security, abundant health, and the experience of God's overarching closeness in their midst. But if they fail to observe the Torah, then disaster will befall them, for not only will their land be barren and their natural vigor exhausted, but warfare will overwhelm them and their enemies will cast them into exile, far from God's presence and distant from the tranquility bestowed by His immediate concern.
THE EXCEPTIONAL TONE OF PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI
While the Torah speaks of "reward and punishment" on any number of occasions, our section of Parashat Bechukotai is nevertheless notable. First of all, the blessings and curses spelled out in our section are strikingly comprehensive, for they leave no aspect of human life and experience unaddressed. Physical health and sustenance, emotional well-being and stability, spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment and every other possible blessing that inspires our earthly existence with worth and meaning, are all presented as the natural outcome of serving God in sincerity. And sickness and poverty, anxiety and fear, alienation and depression and all of the other myriad demons that haunt humanity and crush it with their oppressiveness, are even more prominently highlighted as the inevitable consequences of abandoning God and abrogating His commands.
Secondly, while the Torah more often than not speaks to the individual Jew and charges him or her with the holy burden and noble responsibility to uphold its teachings, our section speaks to the nation, to the people of Israel and to their political state. As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) so perceptively remarks:
These blessings are all-inclusive and apply to the entire nation, and they will be fulfilled when all of our people are righteous. That is why the passage repeatedly refers to "the land" – "the LAND will give forth its produce" (26:4); "you shall dwell in security in your LAND" (26:5); "I will make peace in the LAND…I will cause evil beasts to cease from the LAND and the sword shall not pass through your LAND" (26:6).
Thus, these blessings and curses are about the national dimension for they describe in exhaustive detail the great promise and potential on the one hand, and the unparalleled capacity for destructiveness on the other, that nationhood, a homeland, and political independence confer.
Finally, other passages in the Torah tend to appraise the human condition in realistic terms. Many of the Torah's commands are predicated upon a recognition of our inherent limitations and may occasionally even constitute a concession to our penchant for malevolence. Of course, these teachings concurrently attempt to refine our moral coarseness in order to lift us out of the morass so that we may yet behold God. But by and large they accurately portray a landscape in which social ills such as poverty, injustice and distrust are alive and well, and in which societies – even decent societies – must constantly struggle to eradicate evil, inequity and anguish from their midst. They describe the nature of man for what it is – inspired with a Divine potential for the good, but often consumed with the nasty self-interest that spells moral doom. But our passage, in contrast, paints a picture of man and of Israel that is so overwhelmingly good (or bad!), that the commentaries early on proclaimed that its primary applicability must be eschatological in timing. Turning again to the Ramban in his commentary to verse 12,
These blessings in their entirety will not unfold except when all of Israel fulfills the will of their Father, and the heavens and earth have been perfectly established upon their foundations. Nowhere else in the Torah are there blessings as comprehensive as these, for they are the elements of the covenant and its conditions that pertain between the Holy One blessed be He and ourselves. Understand that Israel NEVER achieved these blessings in their entirety, neither as a collective nor as individuals, for their merits were insufficient…and therefore we find our Sages referring to these verses as descriptions of the future age…for they were not fulfilled, but will yet be fulfilled at the time of perfection (i.e. the Messianic Age).
WHERE ARE THE TORAH'S DESCRIPTIONS OF AN AFTERLIFE?
All of this, of course, raises a profound problem that emerges not only from our superlative passage but from many others in the Torah as well. Why is it that the Torah, in its discussions of reward and punishment, invariably speaks in terms that are material and utilizes descriptions that are tangible and physical? If life's greatest rewards await us after death, in the realm of the spirit where base corporeality holds no sway, then why doesn't the Torah ever spell out the "afterlife," the "world to come," or the "future world" in explicit terms? If the greatest pain that the human being can experience truly is spiritual estrangement from God, then why are such descriptions so obviously absent from the "curses"? In other words, why speak of rainfall, harvest, health or peace when one ought speak of radiance, repose, and being bound up with God's eternity? The question is in actuality not at all confined to our passage, for everywhere the Torah speaks in similar terms:
If you serve God your Lord then He will bless your food and your water, and I will remove sickness from your midst (Shemot 23:25). Perform My statutes and observe and keep My laws, then you will dwell securely upon the land. The land will give its produce, and you will eat in satiation, and you will dwell securely upon it (Vayikra 25:18-19). It shall be that in consequence of listening to these laws, observing and keeping them, that God your Lord will fulfill the covenant and the compassion that He swore to your ancestors. He will love you, bless you and multiply you, He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your earth, your grain, wine and oil, the offspring of your cattle and your sturdy sheep, upon the land that He swore to your ancestors to give to them (Devarim 7:12-13).
Perhaps most famous is the following familiar passage that cohesively links material reward to a man's most lofty spiritual accomplishments – the authentic and all-encompassing service of God that surges forth from a heart sensitive to matters ethereal. This passage actually forms the second paragraph of the Shema, the most important recitation of the daily liturgy:
It will be that if you surely listen to My commands that I enjoin upon you this day, to love God your Lord and to serve Him with all of your heart and with all of your soul, then I will provide the rain for your land in its time, the early and the late, and you will gather in your grain, wine and oil. I will provide grass in your fields for your animals, and you will eat and be satisfied (Devarim 11:13-15).
THE PLEASURES OF THIS WORLD VS. THOSE OF THE AFTERLIFE
Now, lest there be any confusion about how our tradition views the relative value of the afterlife versus the dizzying promises concerning the physical and material pleasures of this world, the Rambam, in a well-known passage from his Laws of Teshuva (8:1-5), sets us straight:
The ultimate good reserved for the righteous is the afterlife in the future world, for it is life that includes no death whatsoever and the complete goodness that involves no bad…in the afterlife there are no physical bodies but rather the incorporeal souls of the righteous, just like the ministering angels. Since there are no bodies, then there is neither eating nor drinking, nor any of the other needs of physical bodies in this world…
Now this goodness may seem inconsequential to you, so that you might imagine that the future reward for the mitzvot and for a man's perfection in the ways of truth ought be for him to eat and drink the best foods, have relations with the most beautiful forms, don garments of fine embroidered linen while lying recumbent in ivory palaces, and to make use of vessels of silver and gold and the like. This is in fact the opinion of those foolish and licentious Arabs (who perceive the afterlife in corporeal terms)! But the wise ones who possess knowledge know that all such things are truly transitory vanities that have no lasting value. We regard such things as very good in this world only because here we have bodies and corporeality, and these things are needs of the body. The soul only desires them here because the body craves them in order to achieve its desires and to be vigorous. But where there is no materiality, then of necessity all of these things are irrelevant!
THE FORMULATION OF THE RAMBAM
The Rambam himself goes on to address our question, claiming that the dearth of descriptive material in the Scriptures concerning the nature of the afterlife is a conscious exclamation: to attempt to describe such ethereal things is to effectively depreciate them, for they are beyond any of the familiar material pleasures that we can ever experience while still bound by our limiting physicality. As for the single-minded focus of the Torah on the rewards and punishments in this world, the Rambam avers:
What is this that the Torah everywhere relates that if we hearken, then such and such will transpire, while if we fail to hearken, then such and such will befall us, while all of those things pertain to this world! These include plenty and famine, war and peace, independence and subjugation, dwelling in the land and exile from it, success and failure, as well as the rest of the matters spelled out in the covenant. All of those were and are true, and when we perform all of the mitzvot of the Torah then all of the good things of this world will come to pass for us, whereas when we abrogate them then the evil things will befall us. Nevertheless, those good things are not the complete reward for the fulfillment of the mitzvot nor are those bad things the final vengeance executed against the wicked.
Rather, this is the explanation of the matter. God gave us the Torah, a tree of life, and whosoever fulfills all of its precepts and comprehends Him correctly and completely, merits through it the afterlife, each one in accordance with the greatness of his deeds and the breadth of his wisdom. HE PROMISED US IN THE TORAH THAT IF WE FULFILL ITS TEACHINGS IN JOY AND WITH GOODNESS OF SPIRIT AND OCCUPY OURSELVES IN ITS WISDOM CONSTANTLY, THEN HE WILL IN TURN REMOVE FROM US ALL OF THOSE THINGS THAT PREVENT US FROM FULFILLING IT, SUCH AS SICKNESS, WAR, FAMINE AND THE LIKE. AND HE WILL GRANT US ALL OF THOSE GOOD THINGS THAT GIVE US THE ABILITY TO PERFORM THE TORAH, SUCH AS PLENTY, PEACE AND WEALTH. THIS IS IN ORDER THAT WE NEED NOT BE PREOCCUPIED WITH ALL OF OUR BODILY NEEDS BUT RATHER WE MIGHT DWELL IN COMFORT TO STUDY ITS WISDOM AND PERFORM THE COMMANDS IN ORDER TO MERIT THE AFTERLIFE…(Laws of Teshuva 9:1).
THE BLESSINGS AS A VEHICLE
In other words, the Rambam maintains that while the afterlife is the final goal of our endeavors and its spiritual pleasure of proximity to God's presence life's most profound reward, it is the life of this world, with all of its physical limitations, that constitutes the only vehicle through which we may secure that achievement. The Torah addresses our lives here and now, its commands are directed to perfecting this world, and its exhortations to the people of Israel to comprehend the Creator and to understand His ways can only be realized while we are alive in our physical bodies. That being the case, it is eminently reasonable that our task will be made much easier if we can in fact be devoted to those loftier pursuits rather than distracted by the myriad material concerns that tend to overwhelm us. If the people of Israel must worry about the next meal, or suffer pain due to illness, or be apprehensive because of looming military threats (or all of the above!), then their ability to focus on the Torah and its wisdom is correspondingly lessened.
For the Rambam, who views the issue through the macro-prism of nationhood, the system is essentially closed: Israel does the commands, God blesses them with material plenty, so then Israel can pursue the commands with even greater vigor. At the end, Israel merits blessing in this world as well as the more profound and real blessing of the afterlife. As for the "curses," they are nothing but the converse of this principle: Israel abrogates the Torah, God unleashes deficiency and want, so then Israel is even less able to perform the precepts and in the end stands in danger of surrendering not only this life's joys, but the afterlife as well.
CONCERN WITH THIS LIFE
While we may ponder the Rambam's thesis and take issue with some of its assumptions, it does highlight one essential fact. In contrast to most of the world's other great religions that are almost single-mindedly preoccupied with the fate of the believer in the afterlife, the Torah proposes a decidedly different emphasis that is actually counter-intuitive! One might have thought that since the afterlife is the greatest good and its rewards are supreme, then one ought to focus upon that reality to the exclusion of all else! Why be concerned with this world and its empty vanities if they are of absolutely no ultimate consequence? But, suggests the Torah by its reticence on the matter, if we do in fact focus upon the heavenly city, if we are obsessed with the flame and the fire, when we concentrate exclusively on the paradise of pleasures that awaits the believer in the hereafter, then how easy it is to turn life in the present on this actual planet into a living hell. After all, life in this world becomes not only secondary, but expendable as well, if the only meaningful objective is otherworldly. However, be concerned with life now, be absorbed with repairing this world, be consumed with redressing the injustices of our all-too-imperfect societies, and not only will we be successful at securing that proverbial pot of supernal gold sometime in the indeterminate future, but we will make this earthly existence much more bearable as well.
The Torah, then, succeeds at resolving the underlying tension that unremittingly stalks every believer – how to convey that our truest reward can only be appreciated in the spiritual realm of the soul, while not simultaneously denigrating and debasing the physical existence that constitutes the only life that we know? Our Parasha this week, along with all of the other many passages that mirror it, provides the most effective response: keep the Torah, legitimately enjoy the blessings of this world, but use them effectively to advance the great spiritual task with which God charges every human being, and through that process secure eternity as well as blessing: "It will be that if you surely listen to My commands that I enjoin upon you this day, to love God your Lord and to serve Him with all of your heart and with all of your soul, then I will provide the rain for your land in its time, the early and the late, and you will gather in your grain, wine and oil. I will provide grass in your fields for your animals, and you will eat and be satisfied" (Devarim 11:13-15).