With Joy and Love

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Bechukotai, spells out, in no uncertain terms, the conditions of the covenant the Jews entered into at Sinai. In setting up the system of Torah readings, Ezra the Scribe arranged that this sedra (Torah portion) should always be read prior to the holiday of Shavuot. This festival is designated as the time of the giving of our Torah and, of course, is one of great joy and celebration.

The warnings contained in our parsha, known as the Tochachah (Rebuke) are dire and pull no punches. They begin on a positive note with the blessings that will come if we observe the Torah properly. G-d promises great practical and material rewards if we are faithful to His commandments. As alluring as these inducements are, one must not imagine that their attainment is the real motivation for living Jewishly. 

The Rabbis emphasize that a person should not say that he will serve G-d just to obtain all the blessings promised in the Torah, or to avoid all the calamities that are consequent to disobedience. Even a desire to attain eternal life in the World to Come is not the proper foundation for keeping the Torah.

At first glance, the Rabbis’ admonishment is difficult to comprehend. It seems to be at odds with the plain implication of Scripture, which holds out to us all the good things we will get when we are faithful to the Torah. It seems safe to say that the Torah’s purpose in articulating these matters is to strengthen our resolve to be observant and to deter us from submitting to sinful temptation. What is the purpose of the blessings and curses, if not to bring us to our senses by making us fully cognizant of the fruits of our behaviors?

We must ask, why are the Rabbis critical of one who calculates the consequences as the basis of his religious observance? The answer is that the Torah is unique and very different from any other religious system. Every other religion appeals to people to keep its strictures, purely because of the results that obedience or violation will produce. They posit the existence of a deity to whom one must submit without question, to avoid his wrath or secure his approval. They cannot present any other reason for observing the rules of the religion that can realistically be justified from the standpoint of human moral reality.

This is not the case with Judaism. “The Law of the L-rd is perfect, restoring the heart.” The Torah is designed by the Creator to enable us to perfect our nature and thus to be in the best possible condition for a truly human existence. Indeed, that is why the Torah places such great emphasis on serving Hashem with joy. One whose service is burdensome or perfunctory, no matter how meticulous, fails to appreciate the real benefit of Torah. 

Thus, the Rabbis urged us not to approach the Torah with the aim of achieving reward or avoiding punishment. That attitude demeans the mitzvot (commandments) of Hashem by reducing them to a means of attaining material rewards. It is, in effect, saying that physical pleasures are the ultimate good, and the Torah is just a means of obtaining them. This constitutes a total distortion of the true nature of Torah.

The philosophy of the Rabbis is that we should serve G-d out of love, with no thought of compensation. Does a person deserve a reward for doing what gives the greatest joy? When someone goes to the doctor to be cured of an affliction, does he expect a prize for his action? Such an attitude would be considered immature and childish. Indeed, children who don’t appreciate the importance of good health often have to be bribed by their parents to submit to the doctor’s examination.

We can now understand why the Torah contains the section about rewards and punishments. At the outset, we are like children who can’t appreciate the great intrinsic benefits of keeping the mitzvot. We read this parsha before Shavuot, which celebrates our acceptance of the Torah. 

Being a Torah-observant Jew requires an absolute commitment to follow the commandments, come what may. This has to be rooted in the most fundamental instincts we possess regarding our desire for protection and security, and our anxieties pertaining to the dangers of life. At the outset, we lack the proper appreciation of the beauty of the Torah way of life and need extraneous inducements to get us going.

However, the Rabbis taught that this state of affairs should be temporary. We need to recognize that the service of G-d should be one of love. If we study diligently and act with wisdom and justice, Hashem opens our eyes and enables us to see the wonders of His Torah, which He mercifully bequeathed to us. May we merit to reach the level where we serve Hashem with joy and love.

Shabbat shalom.