Life’s Little Game Changer

Parshat Behukotai opens with an admonition to observe God’s laws and ordinances, with a promise that this behavior will provide earthly reward: “If you go by My statutes and keep My commands and do them, I will give you rains in their season, and the land will give its yield and the tree of the field will give its fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4) Clearly, this promise was directed towards those living in Eretz Yisrael, where all life is dependent on a plentiful rainy season, prompting a linkage between loyal behavior and this worldly national well-being.

Since the promise of earthly reward and punishment is/was not always clearly discernable, the Jewish tradition has long wrestled with reinterpreting this idea. Among the ideas familiar to all is the idea that reward and punishment will only be implemented in the world to come. The most famous presentation of this idea is found in the story of a youth who climbs a ladder to gather goslings to bring to his father, falls from the ladder and dies. This tragedy created a theological problem because the youth had fulfilled two mitzvot, honoring parents and shewing away the mother bird, for which the Torah promised long life. According to the story line, Aher (Elisha ben Abuyah), a prominent sage, lost his faith and became a heretic on account of the contradictions evident in this episode. The Talmud notes that if Aher had only accepted the idea that reward and punishment were postponed until the world to come, his faith would have remained intact. (See Kiddushin 39b)

This theological reinterpretation, generally accepted in the rabbinic tradition, did not easily mesh with the plain meaning of the scriptural promise cited in our parashah which promises earthly blessings. The acclaimed Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th-19th century Ukraine), fashioned a “creative”, yet religiously meaningful interpretation to resolve this discrepancy:

“This discrepancy can be resolved with reference to teaching from Pirke Avot (4:2): ‘The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah’, meaning that there is no reward for doing a mitzvah in this world. Rather, the reward for doing a mitzvah is that it brings a person to do another mitzvah. And this makes sense [of the above Torah promise] ‘I will give you rain in its season’ – for since the rain brings blessing to the world, each of us will be able to give tzedakah and that is the reward of doing a mitzvah, namely, one mitzvah brings a person to do another mitzvah.” (Kedushat Levi, Behukotai)

The Berditchever’s insight gets at the very crux of the meaning of blessings and rewards. (I would go one further and say that he gets at the meaning of life.) The blessings of life are the opportunities given to us to do good. Anything and everything that give us the tools to do another mitzvah, to do another virtuous deed is something to look forward to and be thankful for. This idea is a game-changer for how to look at life and how we live it.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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