Rashi begins the parshah like a rosh yeshiva with a
mission. It’s all about toiling in Torah study. Lest you think
that “walk in My decrees”2 refers to
some other part of Torah life, like living according to the precepts of
His commandments, Rashi, (citing Toras Kohanim), proves this
impossible. What would the next phrase – “observe my mitzvos“ – mean?
This latter phrase quite clearly deals with following the dictates of the
law, which means that the first refers to something else entirely. What
better candidate than working hard at mastering Torah?
So the two phrases, separate and distinct, establish the labor of learning
and the observance of mitzvos as coequals in meriting all the blessings
with which the parshah continues. So it would seem, until Rashi
arrives at the “observe my mitzvos” phrase, and promptly turns it as well
into a plug for more energized learning. Not content to have the words
make the case for doing the deeds of Torah living, Rashi once again works
Torah study into the text. “Toil in Torah – so that you will properly
observe the mitzvos.” The Torah does not quite mean observance, so much as
the intense and rigorous study that facilitates observance.
By the time Rashi concludes his commentary, Torah study has gained an
exclusive as prerequisite for berachah, with observance itself left
out in the cold.
While Rashi pins all our berachah hopes on learning, Rambam3 plunges into the parshah from a
different perspective. What troubles him in not the identity of the
factors that bring a surfeit of Divine blessing. He tries to understand
the promise of reward altogether. Doesn’t the gemara4 tell us that this world is not where such reward is
A teaching of the seforim hakedoshim is the key to putting the
pieces together. There is no reward for the observance of the mitzvos in
this world, but the reward for the extras, the enhancements, does not have
to wait for the next one. Reward for the mitzvos is withheld in the here-
and-now not because Hashem is somehow reluctant to apply out “credits” to
earthly existence. Rather, mitzvos, in their supernal fullness, do not
lend themselves to a present-world payback. Their holiness and power
transcends the limitations of our world. They come from a higher place,
and their reward looms larger than our imagination. The world is too small
a place to contain the richness of their reward.
This is not true of what we as humans can contribute to the mitzvos: our
longing to see them fulfilled, and the way we adorn them with beauty and
embellishment. (The Saba Kadisha of Lechovitch used to point to a passage
in the Zohar.5 “All berachah of
Above and below depend on Shabbos.” It is only spiritual berachah,
he maintained, that flows directly from Shabbos. Material
berachah, however, has no direct link to it. Shabbos’ elevation
and loftiness preclude a direct connection to mundane things. We draw the
week’s material success from a tributary of Shabbos: Tosafos Shabbos, the
human contribution, that which we (literally!) add to it. He used to urge
that this fact be shared with the common folk.)
Torah study itself, as a fulfillment of the mitzvah “You shall occupy
yourself with it day and night,” does not belong to this world, and is not
paid back in this world. We are paid – quite richly, as the Torah goes on
to describe in its list of benefits – for our enhancement of the mitzvah.
Hashem cherishes and responds to the extra toil and effort we bring to
it. (Toras Avos observes that the word “teleichu” is an
anagram for “kalos,” as in “kalsah nafshi,”6 my soul pines. The Torah reserves the bounty of our
parshah for the person who brings the longing of his soul to
opportunity to fulfill the wishes of His Creator.)
We could suggest an entirely different approach to the specialness of
toiling in Torah. Toras Kohanim describes Hashem Himself as
desirous of Klal Yisrael’s amelus in Torah. The meaning of this
can be mined from Rambam’s description7
of what learning looks like to those livening on the spiritual edge. “One
who raises his heart to fulfill this mitzvah [of Torah study] properly, to
crown himself with the crown of Torah (i.e. his Torah study already
firmly in place, he elevates his thoughts to seek a more elevated approach
to it), must not be distracted by anything else, and must not hope to
acquire Torah alongside wealth and honor. Rather, this is the way of
Torah: You must eat bread with salt, and drink only a measured amount of
water. You will sleep on the ground and live a life of pain. And the
reward is according to the pain.”
After a full and detailed description of the votive life, Rambam links its
reward to a single element. The pain determines the reward. The
amelus that Hashem desires is the complete subordination of self to
a life of Torah, as evidenced by the willingness to experience discomfort
in its pursuit – eating sparsely, banishing consideration of personal
pleasure because Torah is so much more attractive. This life style brings
nachas ruach to Hashem; it is the amelus upon which the
berachos of our parshah are contingent.
Tana D’vai Eliyahu8 reports this
dialogue: “A student came to me and said, ‘My involvement is with Torah.
I cherish it, I desire it, I look that it should come to me. But it
doesn’t.’ I said to this student, “My son, no person merited Torah
without sacrificing his very life for it – for the sake of Heaven.” The
student’s cherishing and longing were admirable, but insufficient.
Pursuing Torah as the ultimate object of his attention and desire will not
get him there; only a person who offers himself to Torah will achieve it.
Are all parts of Torah equal in cementing our relationship with Hashem?
Apparently not, according to a midrash.9 “Through (al pi) these words I established a
covenant with you.”10 The midrash
detects in this His declaration that Torah she-b’al-peh is critical
to the relationship. Our development above makes this eminently
understandable. Studying anything takes dedication, concentration.
Mastering Torah she-b’al-peh requires more than that. We see that
those who succeed push themselves beyond their capacities, neglecting
their other interests, and even their needs. Only those who love Hashem
with all their hearts, all their souls, and all their possessions truly
“I will place my sanctuaries in your midst and travel among you.”11 This is the Torah’s expression of the
ultimate form of devekus. With it, the Torah concludes its detailed
list of berachos. Despite the rule that mitzvos are not rewarded
in this world, He does reward the extra measure of selfless dedication
that turns Torah study into a completely different experience. That life
style so neatly comforms with His Will, that it calls for all the
berachos of our parshah.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs.133-134 2 Vayikra 26:3 3 Teshuva 9:1 4 Kiddushin 39B 5 2:88B 6 Tehilim 84:3 7 Talmud Torah 3:6 8 Rabbah, Chapter 22 s.v. ad 9 Tanchuma, Noach, 3, s.v. eleh toldos. Gitin 60B makes the
same point about the specialness of Torah she-b’al-peh, but does invoke
the theme of painful self-denial in the course of its
study. 10 Shemos 34:27 11 Vayikra 26:12