Inner Involvement in the Service of God

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
The Climax of Chumash Vayikra – And the Fall
 
At the beginning of our parasha, we read of the blessings that God showers upon Am Yisrael:
 
If you walk in My statutes, and keep 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 climax of God’s blessing: Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the next sowing time. There will be peace, food to satiate all, and the blessing of offspring. In addition, the Torah emphasizes God’s presence amongst Am Yisrael:
 
And I will set My Mishkan among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Vayikra 26:11-12)
 
Discussing this reality of God’s abundant blessing coming as a result of our actions, Ramban comments:
 
These blessings, although they are miracles, they belong to the category of “hidden miracles,” and the Torah is full of them.
 
 
However, the Chumash does not end here. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the midst of the curses. Whether the sins of Bnei Yisrael are the result of following other gods, or whether they flow from human weakness or from a perception of God’s way of running the world as “happenstance” and accident – ultimately the people sin and are severely punished by God.
 
The curses are so bitter and the relationship with God reaches such a problematic stage that even when the curses come to an end, it is not thanks to better conduct on the part of Bnei Yisrael. Rather, God decides to stop the punishment solely in the merit of the forefathers:
 
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 for their sakes remember 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. (Vayikra 26:42-45)
 
That same zechut avot (merit of the forefathers) that we invoke to this day, every day, in our prayers; that same zechut avot upon which many of the selichot prayers that we recite during the month of Elul are based; that same zechut avot is the zechut avot that God promised so long ago would save Bnei Yisrael from being consumed by punishment.
 
The impression that arises here is that without zechut avot, we have no hope, no standing, nothing upon which to rely, nothing by which to be saved. Indeed, when the gemara declares (Shabbat 55a) that the zechut avot has elapsed, Tosafot immediately jump in and intervene:
 
Rabbenu Tam says that while zechut avot is finished, the brit avot (covenant of the forefathers) is not finished, as it is written…
 
Free Choice
 
What brings us to such abysmal depths? How is it that at the end of a Chumash devoted in its entirety to sanctity and purity, setting forth the guidelines for a “kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation,” we encounter such a steep and extreme descent? This is a complex discussion, and we will not be able to explain it here in full. However, we can say that the whole problem arises from a most fundamental concept: the free choice given to man.
 
We might compare the situation to that of a father educating his son. One of the biggest challenges in education is watching one’s children making mistakes. A parent wants to correct his child and guide him, but he knows and understands that sometimes the best way for the child to learn is through his own trial and error. And so the parent will watch as the child makes one mistake after the other, without intervening, thereby allowing the child to exercise his free choice. In the same way, God gives us free choice; He allows us to make mistakes.
 
Indeed, free choice often leads to mistakes and falls. While Chumash Shemot concludes triumphantly with God’s Presence in the Mishkan, the Chumashim that follow all end on a less optimistic note. Vayikra concludes with the curses in our parasha; Bamidbar, which once again starts off with the splendid and impressive camp of Israel arranged around the Mishkan, soon runs into trouble, starting with the inverted nun letters, which introduce a series of sins, one after the next, culminating in the debacle of Ba’al Pe’or. At the end of Sefer Devarim, once again, we find the long and terrible punishment set forth in Parashat Haazinu.
 
Inner Involvement
 
All this is the result of free choice – that fundamental element which sets man apart from the animals. Free choice confronts us at every junction in our lives. And very often the decisive factor that determines our choice is the degree of our inner involvement.
 
Two examples may help to illustrate this point. If I am deliberating whether to give some of my money to a poor person, the sense of a profound inner bond with him will decide the issue and cause me to put my hand into my pocket and share some of my wealth. My inner involvement influences my decision.
 
Likewise, when a person is deliberating whether to donate money to Torah institutions, it is his inner connection to Torah, its study, and its scholars that will cause him to feel committed in this direction. Here again, it is the inner connection that plays a key role.
 
Chumash Vayikra is introduced with an area of free choice, including an element of this inner involvement: A person elects to bring a burnt offering:
 
If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, of the cattle you shall 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 mincha (meal) offering, and an animal offering. A mincha offering involves almost no monetary investment. Its monetary value is negligible, and therefore the meaning of and intention behind the mincha offering must find expression in the emotional, voluntary realm.
 
This is not the case when it comes to an animal sacrifice. Here, a person invests a significant sum – and he may make the mistake of thinking that that is enough. He may think that the very fact that he has invested so much testifies very clearly to his orientation and intention, and he therefore is exempt from giving them any emotional expression. In many different places the prophets address the problematic nature of sacrifices, especially in this realm. Much money is invested, and technically speaking the sacrifice is performed in accordance with all the specifications. However, there is no feeling, no connection – and thus the essence of the act is missing.
 
As we know, Kayin chose to bring a sacrifice, but without investing himself in it. We may assume that if he had known the end of his story, he would have brought much more, and much better. But if he had indeed done so, would his effort have equaled that of Hevel? Certainly not. The monetary investment should be an expression of the person’s inner state and of his relationship with God, not just a figure indicating monetary worth!
 
This, then, is the importance of inner connection, which animates and influences every action that a person performs. The inner connection must exist in all that we do – in the realm between ourselves and God and in the realm between us and our fellow man; in our prayer and in our Torah study; in our charity and in our acts of kindness. The importance of this connection goes beyond the elevating of our Divine service. It is nothing less or more than a basic level of morality.
 
Yaakov describes in the following words his efforts and personal investment in shepherding Lavan's flocks:
 
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 so hotly pursue after me?... These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your she-goats have 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, of my hand you required it, 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 31:36-40) 
 
Yaakov could have worked a little less hard, invested less effort, avoided the frost at night. At worst, maybe a few sheep would have been lost. But Yaakov did not permit himself to do this. His effort was at the highest possible level.
 
At the end of his Laws of Hiring, the Rambam makes reference to Yaakov's devotion:
 
And likewise he is obligated to work with all his strength, for the righteous Yaakov [Yaakov Ha-Tzaddik] said, "For I served your father with all my strength" (Bereishit 31:6), and for this reason he received this reward already in this world, as it is written, And the man flourished exceedingly” (Bereishit 30:43).
 
This unique appellation of tzaddik is awarded to Yaakov in light of his extremely high work ethic and moral standards in his service of Lavan, as reflected in his profound inner involvement with his work.
 
***
 
One of the areas in which we are required to invest ourselves extensively and profoundly is the study of Torah. I recently overheard a discussion between some students. They were debating which is preferable: a student who sits in the yeshiva, exerting minimal effort, but attaining tremendous achievements thanks to his inborn intelligence and talent; or a student who invests his heart and soul in his learning, but nevertheless achieves little and does not reach any significant level of knowledge of Torah.
 
Of course, the answer to the question depends on the objective: What is it that we are looking for? If a person is looking for a doctor, then what interests him is principally the level of knowledge and professionalism. He is not particularly interested in how much effort the doctor exerted during his or her years of studies. However, when it comes to Torah, our aim is different.  In Torah study, we are looking for the inner connection – not so much the ability or final result, but rather the work and effort and investment themselves.
 
Our parasha opens with the verse:
 
If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and perform them… (Vayikra 26:3).
 
The formulation here is very interesting. The Torah does not speak of “hearing” or “obeying” God, but rather “walking” in His statutes – walking, following willingly, out of devotion to God and the desire to be close to Him. Accordingly, Rashi explains:
 
“If you walk in My statutes” – We might think that this means fulfillment of the commandments, but then the verse continues, “and keep My commandments” – so that is already mentioned separately. How, then, do we go about fulfilling the idea of “walking in My statutes”? By exerting ourselves in Torah.
 
Exertion in Torah is what is called for. It is this that stands at the center. The midrash describes how Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah: he remained there for forty days, each day learning the Torah anew, and then forgetting it, learning and forgetting. Finally, after forty days of unceasing effort as this scenario replayed itself over and over, God gave him the Torah as a gift, and it was only by virtue of this gift that Moshe merited to know the Torah.
 
The exertion, expressing a profound inner connection to Torah, is what is required of us. It is this that brings us blessing and, more importantly, God’s presence amongst the Jewish People. Our aim is to immerse ourselves in Torah, to devote ourselves to it conscientiously. If we do this as we should, then with God’s help we will be worthy of the blessings set forth at the beginning of the parasha, in their full detail and splendor.
 
Translated by Kaeren Fish