Weekly Torah Commentary — Bechukotai May 16, 2014

BECHUKOTAI Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3 – 27:34

Standing in the checkout line at the supermarket yesterday, I noticed the cover of the current TIME magazine whose cover raised the question: how does our perception of the afterlife affect our lives and choices now? (That’s not an exact quote but that’s the essence of the question.) Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion deals in part with that very issue!

This week’s reading deals with blessings and with curses, with reward and punishment. The topic in its entirety is “broader than the ocean” and it is obviously beyond the scope of this blog post to explore all the issues involved. But we do want to take a look at this issue and specifically at what the Torah teaches regarding material vs spiritual prosperity and how that plays out in our lives.

We have seen earlier in our Torah meditations that on the one hand, obedience to God’s commandments and doing good in this life yields everlasting life in the world to come. But we have also read that obedience to God yields rewards in this life as well. Material well-being is one of the rewards of faithful observance of God’s commandments according to the Torah. Why then does it sometimes appear that the reality on the ground is different?

According to Maimonides, if a person’s actions demonstrate that his main interest in the material world is to make use of it to serve God and reach a high level of spiritual intimacy with the Alighty, God takes this into account and provides Him with the material necessities of life and releases him from the responsibility of worrying about the inputs of physical existence so that he is liberated to engage in higher pursuits.

If, on the other hand, a person demonstrates by the focus of his actions that he is interested in the level of his material well-being for its own sake, for his own pleasure unrelated to spiritual pursuits, and physical inputs are the main focus of his interest, then God burdens him with all sorts of physical problems. He becomes so occupied with the concerns of physical survival, of his own and of his family, that he is bereft of the time and the energy to devote to spiritual pursuits.

If we accept this perspective, we then understand that material blessings in this world are not an end in themselves, nor are they a “reward” in the classic sense of the word, but rather a means to deeper spirituality. That means then that our attitude towards material blessings may need some adjustment.

A startling concept concerning the proper orientation to spirituality is contained in these ideas. The Torah associates spiritual merit with physical well being because spiritual rewards and punishments (“blessings” and “curses”) require the same kind of diligent physical effort – or lack thereof – as material pursuits.

Developing an intimate, personal relationship with God requires time and energy. It requires a commitment of the heart to make such a pursuit the highest priority in one’s life. A person with that commitment doesn’t wait around for the time to do that; he makes the time to invest in spiritual development. In other words, he establishes right priorities and as the weeks and months go by, it becomes more and more obvious that other issues of life fall into place – in fact, they do so far better when his pursuit of spirituality takes on the highest value!

How then should we conceive of the world to come? The Sages send us back to our physical lives in this world in the search for the next. For example, if someone bought a spacious piece of land, had plans for a house drawn up by a great architect, hired the contractors, took out the necessary permits, but never built the house, he could never taste the joy of living in it. In the same way, if a person has every intention of doing great things, has a wonderful character and is truly good, a respected philanthropist, but has never invested the time and energy to come to know God in a personal way, he cannot spend eternity basking in the spiritual joy generated by his “good” works. He never built the spiritual house.

God put us into this world to get ourselves a life. The one we chose for ourselves is the only life that we have. Since our ‘life’ in the World to Come will be the spiritual reflection of this one, it follows that God, in a manner of speaking, has nothing to give us there. He can and does help us to build the best life possible while we are alive, provided we seek Him and follow Him; after death, the actions performed during our lives are the only reality. In the spiritual world there is nothing to be done for the person who doesn’t have much of a life. He has nothing on account in the spiritual banking system.

[Of course this general principle applies to people who chose not to do much with their lives of their own free will. We are not discussing here the tragedy of babies or children who die young, etc.)

In summary, God’s Torah teaches us that work has value, both spiritually and materially. Its value transcends our present life; its value reaches into the world to come.

In Tune with Torah this week = those who refuse to work now can turn to governmental welfare to get by;
in the world to come there is no ‘free lunch’. It is incumbent upon us NOW to invest the time,energy and purpose in building our relationship with God, our King and our Father. It is that relationship and the fruits of it that will determine our position in the World to Come. How interesting – TIME magazine has hit upon a critical subject that should be of concern to every human being!!

Shabbat Shalom

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