The Workings of Jewish Life, How to Earn the Good and Avoid the Bad

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

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Parshat Behukkotai has a set of blessings, should the Jews act wisely and follow the Torah, and punishments/curses, should they do the reverse. In the blessing part, 26;6, Hashem promises to remove (ve-hishbati, more literally, I will give the land respite from, the same root as Shabbat) hayyah ra’ah, vicious beasts, from the Land.

Meshech Hochmah refers us to Torat Kohanim 2;1, where R. Yehudah says the verse means Hashem will ensure no such animals enter Israel. R. Shim’on says it is more of a demonstration of Hashem’s power and impact on the world if the animals are there, yet stop being destructive (the wolf lying down with the lamb, as in Yeshayahu 11;6).

Meshech Hochmah links R. Shim’on’s claim to his position in a debate (in Berachot 35b, but also in Sifrei) with R. Yishma’el about the meaning of ve-asafta deganecha, you shall gather your grain, in the second paragraph of Shema. The Torah’s acceptance of working the fields seems in tension with Yehoshu’a 1;8, this book of the Torah shall not move from your mouth, seeming to imply Torah should be all-consuming.

R. Yishma’el took the position most of us do, the verse inShemawas allowing us to attend to our mundane needs, giving us a framework within which we also had to make sure Torah did not leave our mouths. R. Shim’on was sure working our fields like ordinary farmers interfered too much with Torah study. He said that when Jews fulfill the Divine Will, others will do their work for them; ve-asafta deganecha, the need to gather our own grain, comes only when Jews fail to keep the Torah well enough. [I’m not the first to remember R. Shim’on spent thirteen years in a cave, provided for by Hashem, which we could imagine coloring his perspective.]

Tosafot to Berachot questioned R. Shim’on’s idea because that section of the Torah opens ve-hayah im shamo’a, if you obey Hashem, and then says you will gather your grain. R. Shim’on treats the verse as relating to failure, when the verse presents itself as the result of success.

Always Connected or Mostly Connected

Meshech Hochmah turns to Tosafot, who said this paragraph of Shema referred to reasonable general observance, not the level that makes one a tzaddik gamur, a totally righteous person. He takes the idea further, says destructive forces only affect us in moments we are not completely connected to Torah. (Tosafot thought the blessings depend on overall righteousness, Meshech Hochmah hinges it on permanence of connection.) Rambam in the Moreh taught us that while a person is focused on Hashem, Divine Providence extends specially, in a way that prevents all negative outcomes.

This explains how bad things happen to good people. We are only completely protected from untoward events while in a state of connection, and no one can maintain that ceaselessly. [Bad events aren’t always punishment, he means, they are what happens in life without divine intervention, and we are only guaranteed protective intervention while at the highest level of involvement, highest level hashgachah, providence, that fends off all destructive forces.]

R. Shim’on thought the Torah wanted to make this clear, so we would know of the honor to Hashem’s Name we bring when weareso fully linked, that wild, destructive animals—and anything else bad—will have no effect on us.

(If It’s Not Doable, What Was Rashbi Thinking?

I have problems with this idea as an explanation of R. Shim’on b. Yohai’s view. Rambam does have the idea of devekut, cleaving to Hashem, being a time of greater protection. Meshech Hochmah’s certainty none of us—and certainly not the nation as a whole—can achieve such a level all the time, though, creates problems in reading R. Shimon b. Yohai as having meant that.

If it is a greater sanctification of God’s Name to have wild animals in the land, who will refrain from attacking while we are devekim, it means they will attack other times. The sanctification of God’s Name then depends on people being able to tell when Jews are in a state of devekut and when not. Without such understanding, when Jews do get attacked, it would seem to open the way for others to deny any kind of special providence for the people.

I find his reading of R Shim’on in Berachot harder. The simple reading there has R. Shim’on assume we shouldn’t have to earn a living if we do well. If that’s true only while we are cleaving to God, and none of us succeeds all the time, how could R. Shim’on think one could ever refrain from planting or otherwise working to earn a living?

For Tosafot, R. Shim’on envisioned a time when the Jews’ general good level will be enough for Hashem to have others provide their livelihoods. Meshech Hochmah’s further step makes R. Shimon’s view harder to imagine.)

However he would have rebutted my points, he raises this important question: to what extent are Jews supposed to function as if nature rolls along on its own, to what extent have we been promised Hashem will change nature when we are doing well, and what“doing well” earns us a world without troubles, our livelihoods coming easily and without interfering in our more important endeavors, such as studying Torah and serving Hashem?

It’s All About Desecration of Hashem’s Name

Fifteen verses later, Hashem warns we will receive sheva ke-hatoteichem, seven like our sins, if we go wrong. Meshech Hochmah focuses on the verse’s ke-, like, rather than al, for. He says the Torah means the punishments will come for the hillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name, in Jews’ sinfulness. [As opposed to Rashi, for example, who thought the seven punishments reflected seven contributing sins.]

Shabbat 151b registered a caveat to Hashem’s (Bereshit 9;2) promise to Noah. The verse says all animals would fear people, and the Gemara says animals would lose that fear regarding any person who is him/herself too animalistic. Should the Jews, God forbid, take unnecessary, futile, or false oaths (shav va-sheker), or desecrate Shabbat, they will be acting as if Hashem’s Name has no special significance, and will lose their advantage over animals, who will return to damaging them. (In the first comment we discussed, it took complete devekut to be immune to wild animals, but it takes hillul Hashem for animals to have free reign, as if people were purely part of the animal kingdom.)

(There are many ways to define desecrating God’s Name, so his choice of improper oaths and Shabbat desecration suggests a context of his own. Rambam does single out these kinds of oaths as serious sins in Hilchot Teshuvah 1;2, but that was to group them with the sins liable for death or karet, among which Shabbat is one but not the only. Meshech Hochmah didn’t bring up the hillul Hashem in refraining from circumcision, eating hametz on Pesah or eating on Yom Kippur, for example. Food for thought.)

Keeping Hold of Our Jewishness While Punished, Not Abandoned

I left a famous of his on Behukkotai for last, and certainly did not leave enough room to do it justice (I’m not sure the whole column would have been enough to do it justice). Towards the end of the tochachah, Hashem promises never to rejectthe Jewish people. To explain, Meshech Hochmah offers an insight into the workings of Divine Providence surprising in its prescience.

He says when Divine Wisdom decreed exile, it sought a way to ensure Jews would not be totally lost to assimilation (a worry he is already aware of, and has only progressed in prevalence as time has passed). Hashem’s first strategy, was to inspire the nation’s leaders to enact strategies to sustain Jews’ hold on their connection to God. For example, Ya’akov told the Jewish people to hold to their customs of clothing and names (he is referring to the Midrashic idea that’s all the Jews had left by the time they left Egypt), as well as having himself buried in Israel.

Had he been buried in Egypt, the Jews would have shifted their identity fully to this new country. Keeping the nation’s ancestors back in Israel was a powerful way to maintain the link and awareness. As Ya’akov says explicitly at the start of their time in Egypt, they had come to sojourn, not settle. Yosef and his brothers could not be buried back in Canaan, but left strict word to take their bones with them when the Exodus finally came, also contributing to a culture of memory of Canaan.

Ezra and his colleagues instituted other rules with the same goal, he says without naming them.

The Protective Vicissitudes of Exile

That aside, he says Divine Providence brings the Jews into a place for a century or two, then a storm arises, destroying without compassion, the troubles chasing Jews to new places. In the new place, they find success, Torah flourishes, their wisdom helps them, and they again forget to be only visitors. They become entrenched, and God sends another storm.

(The question of building a life in exile as opposed to becoming rooted is a crucial one, I believe. How much do we spend on the infrastructure of a life that is theoretically a temporary stay?)

In exile, we lack prophecy and a central Torah body to allow for innovative halachic courses of action. It presents a problem for people whose natures almost compel them to innovate. Without halachah and Jewish life as a place to do it, such a person will invest in the local culture instead, says Meshech Hochmah. S/he will leave religion, learn languages not his (a knock at German Reform, at least, which started with learning the German language), will decide that Berlin is Jerusalem (the best home for the Jewish people).

(He does not point it out, but Jews used to also call Vilna the Jerusalem of Lithuania, and New York—or Lakewood or Teaneck, or…–the Jerusalem of America. He is highlighting an unfortunate tendency of exile, it’s either horrific or welcoming enough for Jews to treat it like home. Self-defeating, because the comfort itself sparks the next iteration of expulsion. If only we could learn what Ya’akov Avinu tried to teach us: we are strangers, resident aliens, of any place other than our land.)

For Meshech Hochmah, this pattern– which I think many Jews experience as a faith challenge, a wonder why God would do this to us over and over—shows Hashem’s involvement with us, Hashem’s helping us not get too far lost, too caught up in the comforts of wherever we happen to be.

At the end of all this, and more that I’ve skipped, he writes binah zeh, understand this well. I can’t add anything to that.

(Which doesn’t mean I won’t: Meshech Hochmah’s idea would suggest that if there were Jews living in an exile where Jews had flourished for a century or more, and were becoming too connected to want to leave, were coming to think of it as a permanent home, it would be time to worry about Hashem sending us a forceful reminder it is not our place. And I’m with him, binah zeh, ponder this for its insights.)

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