The pasuk at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai says: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and do them” (Vayikra 26:3). Rashi explains that “Im b’chukosai teilechu” (If you walk in my statutes) cannot be referring to Mitzvah observance in general because that is mentioned elsewhere in this pasuk. Rashi says that the expression means “she’ti’heyu ameilim b’Torah” (that you should be diligent in your study of Torah).
This seems to be a very strange drasha. The word chok and the phrase “ameilus b’Torah” do not seem to be related. Chukim are those mitzvos which, at first glance, seem to have no rhyme or reason. Shatnez is a chok. Why can’t a garment contain wool and linen together? The Ribono shel Olam knows. He has His reasons. We accept that. The ultimate chok, the paradigm of all chukim, is Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer). There is no sense to this law—at least to us human beings. The prohibition of eating pig is a chok. The laws of Kashrus are chukim. On the other hand, ameilus b’Torah is diligently pursuing the understanding of Torah. It is an intellectual pursuit requiring intense mental effort. Learning and understanding Torah is not a chok. Why do Chazal and Rashi define b’chukosai teileichu as ameilus b’Torah?
Rav Simcha Zissel gives the following answer in his sefer on Chumash: When the Torah refers to ameilus b’Torah being a chok, it is referring to the transformative properties of Torah. Learning Torah does something to a person. Torah learned properly changes the person. He becomes a different person. There is no other academic discipline that has this property. If a person is “amel in Physics” or “amel in Economics,” it does not change the nature of the person. Even if someone is an “amel in Philosophy,” it still does not affect his nature. To wit, there were great philosophers, who, on a personal level, left much to be desired.
When Chazal say that “you should be ameilim b’Torah” here, they are referring to this mystical power of Torah to change people. The pasuk is referring to that “chok.” If that is the case, then merely quickly “learning up” a blatt Gemara or merely being ma’aver sedra and reading the Targum without knowing what you are saying is a fulfillment of the Biblical Mitzvah of learning Torah – I am not denying that – but the power of Torah to transform the person requires a different level of learning. That is amelus b’Torah. That is shvitzing over a Daf of Gemara. That is sweating hard to understand a Tosfos.
That is why, for instance, Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes in his sefer Safre De’tzneusa, as follows: “I heard from the mouth of the holy Gaon of Vilna that many times malachim (angels) came to his doorway to offer to freely transmit to him the secrets of Torah, without any effort or intensive study on his part at all. However, he refused to listen to them.” The Gaon said “no thanks” to these malachim who were anxious to share Torah secrets with him without his having to expend any effort to acquire this knowledge.
If a malach came to me one night and wanted to share “Torah secrets” with me, I would tell him “Be my guest!” But the Gaon, who was the personification of a Torah genius, wanted to have the ameilus b’Torah. He refused to accept a “free pass” to the acquisition of Torah knowledge. That is what makes a person different.
The Taz says in Shulchan Aruch that the bracha we recite every morning before learning Torah is “… asher kidishanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu LA’ASOK b’Divrei Torah.” La’asok means to be diligently involved or engrossed. The more common language would be “LILMOD (to learn) Torah.” The Taz explains the connotation of the word La’Asok. Chazal really want us to put effort – blood, sweat, and tears – into our Torah study endeavors. Only then will the Torah student experience the mystical power of Torah to transform him. This is the interpretation of Im b’chukosai teleichu – she’ti’heyu AMEILIM b’Torah.
The Message of Shmitta For Contemporary Society
After spelling out the rewards that come in the wake of “If you will walk in the ways of my statutes…” (Vayikra 26:3), the Torah begins the Tochacha itself with the words “And if you will not hearken unto Me…” (Vayikra 26:14). The Torah lists terrible curses that will befall Klal Yisrael if they do not keep the Torah’s commandments. And then the pasuk says, “Then the land will finally have its Sabbaticals.” (Vayikra 26:34).
It seems from this pasuk that the Tochacha occurs because the Jews did not observe Shmitta (the Sabbatical year). Since the land was not allowed to lie fallow for the entire year as intended, the Jews will be exiled from their country and the land will finally lie fallow for many years, as a compensation.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky asks a simple question: Who mentioned Shmitta anywhere in this parsha? Shmitta is not specifically mentioned in Parshas Bechukosai – neither in any of the listed mitzvos that we are supposed to keep, nor in any of the listed aveiros that we should avoid transgressing. Suddenly, when commenting on the after-effect of the punishment (exile), the Torah comments “Then the land will have its Shmitta.” This seems surprising. The Torah here in Parshas Bechukosai never said that they didn’t keep Shmitta!
Not only that, but Rashi makes the calculation that from the entire time the Jews came into Eretz Yisrael, they NEVER kept Shmitta. That is incredible! How can it be that all those years they never kept Shmitta?
Rav Yaakov has a very beautiful approach to answer these questions. Rav Yaakov says that Parshas Behar and Parshas Bechukosai should really be read as one unit. Parshas Behar begins with Shmitta and then continues with Yovel (the Jubilee year). Next it continues with the halacha of cheating (Ona’ah). Then the Torah goes off on a tangent. But we should really focus on the beginning of Parshas Behar, which talks about Shmitta and then avoid getting distracted by all the intervening topics. Then, at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai the Torah continues, “If you walk in the ways of my statutes…,” which Chazal say teaches us “You should be amelim b’Torah.”
In an agrarian economy (which was Jewish society – and virtually all society for that matter – in Biblical times), when you take off an entire year, what on earth do you do with your time? Remember the economy was 99% based on farming. The Torah says “stop farming” every seven years. Stop doing what you are doing. In years 49 and 50, “stop farming for two years straight.” What in the world are you supposed to do during Shmitta and Yovel? The answer is “You should be amelim in Torah.” That is why the Torah gave us a mitzvah of Shmitta.
Imagine if that were the situation today. Imagine if every seven years everyone would need to stop working. What are you supposed to do with your time? In those days, you could not even go onto the Internet – there was no Internet! What was there to do? The answer is that this is the way the system was set up. The system was set up so that every seven years, all of Klal Yisrael goes to Kollel. That is the way it was supposed to work.
The trouble is that we get sidetracked with all the intervening topics in Parshas Behar and we lose the main flow. The way it is supposed to really read is the mitzvah of Shmitta and then right after that “you should be amelim in Torah” – because that is what you are supposed to do during the seventh year. And then the Torah says, if you did not do that (“If you hearken not to Me…”) and you did not take advantage of the Shmitta, in other words, by doing what you are supposed to be doing during that year, THEN the land will take its Sabbaths. Parshas Behar and Parshas Bechukosai are meant to be read together. The Torah is saying to take off a year. Sit and learn that year. Be amel in Torah during that year. If you wasted the year (or you worked during the year), you will be exiled in punishment and then the land will get its rest.
Rav Yaakov further explains that when Rashi says they did not keep Shmitta for the whole 490 years they were in Eretz Yisrael, it does not mean that they didn’t observe the law to abstain from agricultural work on the land. It means they didn’t use their free time during Shmitta as they were supposed to!
What is the takeaway lesson from this parsha here in the United States of America in 2023 when there is no Shmitta, and no one is taking off a year from their work? The lesson is how to make use of our time when we have the opportunity to not work – a legal holiday, a Sunday, or whenever it is. We don’t have a Shmitta but we have mini-Shmittas every week! Chazal say that we have Shabbos for people to learn on Shabbos. In America, we need to take advantage of our “Shabbos sheni shel galiyos” (Sundays).
What could be a more important message as we approach the holiday of Shavuos? Take advantage of the free time that we always have, and put that time to good use. This is what the Torah wanted out of Shmitta and this is what the Torah wants out of our vacations as well.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Edited by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Behar is provided below:
- # 011 – Rationing Medical Care
- # 012 – Can Teachers Strike?
- # 054 – Life Insurance: The Torah Policy
- # 055 – Candle Lighting & Havdalah: How Early & How Late?
- # 097 – “Ribis” Problems of Interest for the Jew in a Mercantile Society
- # 098 – “Cheremei Tzibur”: A Ban on Living in Germany?
- # 145 – Kidney Donations: Endangering Oneself to Save Another
- # 192 – Making Shabbos Early
- # 282 – The Physician’s Obligation to Heal
- # 328 – Sh’mita and the Heter Mechira
- # 372 – Using Shuls As A Shortcut
- # 416 – Supporting Jewish Merchants
- # 460 – The Obligation of Checking One’s Teffilin
- # 504 – Lag B’Omer
- # 548 – Marrying for Money
- # 592 – Ribis and the Non-Jew
- # 636 – The Kedusha of the Ezras Noshim
- # 680 – Is Ribis Ever Permitted?
- # 724 – The Chazzan Who Changes His Mind
- # 768 – Dos and Don’ts of Treating a Lender
- # 812 – How Much Is That Tiffany Necklace?
- # 856 – Distractions When Performing A Mitzvah
- # 900 – Oy! My Tefillin Are Pasul
- # 945 – Overcharging: How Much Is Too Much?
- # 987 – Limud HaTorah – Must You Understand What You Are Learning?
- # 988 – Bentching – Making Sure You Eat and Enjoy
- #1031 – Sh’mitta – How Did the Farmers Survive?
- #1032 – The Child Molester – What Must We Do?
- #1076 – Cheating in Business It May Be More Asur Than You Think
- #1118 – What Are You/Aren’t You Allowed To Talk About on Shabbos?
- #1119 – Davening in a Rented Movie Theater–Is There A Problem?
- #1160 – The Mahram of Padua, The Ramo, and l’Havdil the Pope
- #1204 – The Friend Who Reneged on their Power Ball Agreement
- #1205 – The Case of the Women of Vienna and the Incredible Response of the Rabonim
- #1249 – Heter Meah Rabbonim: The Rarely Used Sanction of Polygamy
- #1292 – The Price of Fish for Shabbos Went Sky High – What Can the Community Do?
- #1293 – A Tragic Holocaust Shailah
- #1336 – The Tochacha of Parshas Bechukosai – Should It Be Avoided?
- #1380 – – Can One Be Obligated to Bentch Even if He Didn’t Eat?
- #1424 – “Thank You Very Much for the Loan”-Is That Ribis?
- #1468 – Going to the Mikveh During the Corona Pandemic or Other Difficult Times
- #1511 – Onaas Devorim: Saying Hurtful Words to Open Up Someone’s Eyes?
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