Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
Most of this week’s parsha, Bechukosai, is focused on the various blessings and curses the Jewish people will be privy to, all dependent on our adherence to the Torah. When looking closely at the various blessings/curses, both on a thematic plane, and in the specific, we see profound and indelible images: blessings that include abundant food, a state of peace, the growth of the nation. And at the other end of the spectrum, the curses, where we are devoured by our enemies and driven into exile. To some extent, it is clear how the curses reflect our removed state from God. However, when looking at the blessings, it seems that “heaven on earth” is the ideal state for man. Is this indeed the case?
The beginning of the parsha begins with a promise:
“If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; 4 then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. 5 And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time; and ye shall eat your bread until ye have enough, and dwell in your land safely (Vayikra 26:3-5).”
The Torah begins the section of blessings with what would seem to be positive developments in the world of agriculture. Excluding one other later verse, the rest of the blessings deal with other realms of benefit to us, such as peace and the establishment of the Temple.
No doubt, easy farming and bountiful fruit sound like great rewards, but is this really the ultimate end?
When parsing the details, more questions emerge. For example, what is the major positive development found in the rains coming at their correct time? Both Rashi and the Ramban sense this issue, and offer different explanations.
“[I will give your rains] in their time: at a time when people do not usually go out, for example, on Sabbath Eve”
Rashi seems to be telling us that the greatness of rains coming at their scheduled time is that it won’t rain when people are outside. At first glance, this does not seem like a big deal. Why is this such a significant development?
Ramban offers a more expansive interpretation. He writes:
“He mentioned the matter of rains first because if they come in their proper season, the air is pure and good and the springs and rivers are good, and thus it is a prime cause of physical health, and all produce will increase and be blessed by it, just as He said, ‘and the Land shall yield and her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.’ Thus because of this people do not become sick, and ‘none shall miscarry, nor be barren’, even among their cattle, and they will live out their days. For when the material frame is large and healthy, they can continue as in the days of Adam. Thus this is the greatest of all blessings.”
It is important to emphasize this last statement of Ramban – “this is the greatest of all blessings”. Greater than having a state of peace? Greater than having the Temple? Why even bother making such a comparison? Are the blessings subject to some type of ranking system? One can also see a picture of physical utopia being presented here. Again, is paradise the objective of the blessings?
A common theme in blessings rendered unto others — whether it be composed by man (Yitzchak to Esav and Yaakov) to emanate from God, or by God Himself — is the notion of an ideal physical environment. We know full well, Judaism holds the notion of control over the instinctual as fundamental to the religion itself. We must understand the separation of mind from the world of the instinctual; consider how the pleasures sought after in the physical world for their own sake usually lead to more frustration, and how indulgence in the world of the instinctual leads to man’s destruction. Why would we desire the world portrayed by Rashi or Ramban? We also know, as discussed by Rambam and others, that to desire an ascetic life is mistaken. One should not view the physical world as inherently evil, some type of “trap” that awaits man’s coming. Resolving this perceived tension requires us to make one important step. Our attitude towards the physical world is what will ultimately determine if it is to aid man or destroy him. When we can see the world in a way where its products and functions assist man in his objective of serving God, then man is operating in line with it. However, if man sees the physical world as an end, where he pursues the benefits of the world purely to satisfy his instincts, then the physical world is his doom. If we follow the Torah and adhere to its commandments, we merit these blessings. Built into this very premise is the fact that part of our following of Torah means we understand the proper relationship between the physical world and us. Thus, the stage is set for the introduction of the various blessings.
We can now get a sense of the debate between Rashi and Ramban. Rashi is focusing on how God will ensure the physical world “responds” to our high level of existence. Many times, our surrounding world functions in harmony with our needs and interests. However, there are times when it becomes an obstacle to accomplishing a desired objective. Such an impediment can express itself on a small detailed level, or something much larger. Rain, in this instance, is being used an example. There are times when rain functions as an obstruction to us; but, in the time described by the Torah, it will never function in such a way, as it will “only” rain when we are indoors. In other words, the physical world will cease to function as an impediment to us. How the specifics will play out we cannot know. But the Torah is assuring us that in the same way we will no longer allow the physical world to be an impediment to our growth, it will respond in kind.
Ramban focuses on another aspect of this. Indeed, he is describing a utopian physical world. It is interesting how Ramban notes how with the rains coming at the right time, man will be healthy. Of course, there is great benefit for man to be in a healthy state. Yet there is a larger message here. If the world operates in a manner where man is able to maximize its benefits, that it is truly in sync with its purpose. When man relates to the world as a vehicle towards his perfection, God in return will ensure that the world benefits him in the exact ideal way. If man is healthy, he develops greater security, his energies are focused on increasing his learning and perfection, and he is able to live the ideal existence. Thus, Ramban is emphasizing how man will be able to gain from the physical world in the perfect manner.
Rashi adds one other point regarding our state of satiation, implied at the end of the last verse quoted above:
“One will eat only a little [food], but it will become blessed in one’s innards.”
How are we to understand food that is “blessed” in our digestive system? Working off of the concepts suggested above, it is possible that the Torah is adding one more point to the discussion concerning the relationship between man and the physical world. At first, God accentuates how the physical world will operate in an ideal state for man’s perfection. While it is true man will be on a high level, Rashi is alluding to one more pivotal step in his development. As an example, when determining how much food will be sufficient at a specific meal, we estimate how much food we need. Sometimes that first plateful is too little, and we go back for seconds. Other times, we take to much. We gauge our needs, but our emotions can easily distort this measuring process. What Rashi is telling us is that we will relate to the physical world in a precise way. We will know exactly what we need to be satisfied, and need less overall to reach that state.
These blessings, then, do paint a picture of paradise. The paradise, though, cannot just be viewed as abundant produce and feelings of satiation. The true paradise emerges when the relationship between man and his surrounding world is in perfect harmony, the objective of these first set of blessings.