BEHUKOTAI (Lev 25:1 - 26:2)  5768 (2008)


There is a tension in the Blessings and Curses in Leviticus 26 in this sense: they deal essentially with Material benefits or deficits.   But shouldn't the Torah be primarily concerned with higher, Spritual values?  Why doesn't Lev 26 speak of Spiritual rewards, as later texts talk about the bliss of the World-To-Come?

Some ideas:

  • We need some level of material well-being in order to focus on higher Spiritual values.  Where there is no bread, there is no Torah; and where there is no Torah, there is no bread.   [Mechilta].  Without bread, a hungry person can't learn Torah; he is still on the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  (And symmetrically, without studying Torah one will not receive the material benefit of bread.)

Foreshadowing Maslow, Maimonides says in this regard: When a man is preoccupied with the matters of this world, dogged by illness, hunger and war, he cannot busy himself with wisdom nor good deeds, through which we merit eternal life.

  •  Similarly, if we have material well-being it is easier for us to do all the mitzvot and thus receive spiritual (and further material) rewards for doing so.
  •  And further, if we are disobedient and enjoy less material benefits, it is more difficult for us to do the mitzvot with the consequence that our spiritual reward will be less.  An important Curse is to have diminished our capacity to do good; and an important Blessing is to have that capacity increased. 

I believe that is the meaning of the saying: The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah [Avot 4.2, Ben Azzai] - meaning that if you do one, you get the opportunity to do another.  This also suggests that doing the mitzvah is its own reward - we shouldn't do them because of the material rewards in Lev 26.  We do them to reinforce our good habits, and derive satisfaction from having served and obeyed God.  Post-Biblical works like the Talmud indicate this; perhaps the Bible was dealing with a more primitive or child-like culture that needed the material Blessings and Curses to motivate them.

  • Other faiths like Christianity include in their Holy Texts the spiritual rewards such as immortality of the soul for obedience or unshakeable faith.  Judaism's lack of this reward in the Bible discomforted several famous commentators.  Some find this reward implied in the Torah, although not explicitly stated - their interpretations seem like a stretch.

  • By the time of the Talmud, it clear that the rewards of Lev 26 might be delayed until the World-To-Come and not received in This World.  For example: Reward for performance of a mitzvah is not bestowed in this world.   [Kiddushin 39b]
  • There is also a school of thought that spiritual enlightenment is only possible when there is material deprivation.  When we are fat and sassy and successful, we are tempted to enjoy sensual pleasures and have no need to seriously examine our lives or the world.

It is remarkable that the greatest Jewish achievements have for the most part occurred when Jews are oppressed and suffering.  The Talmud and most commentaries and Jewish literature reflect a flourishing of the intellect while being ruled and oppressed by others, often in the midst of poverty, insecurity and suffering.

A good question is whether material benefits are even relevant to Jewish spiritual and intellectual accomplishments.  There may be something inherent in the intersection of Jews with their holy texts and culture that creates great achievements without regard to their material status.

Nevertheless, as Rabbi Mae West said, I've been rich and I've been poor.  Believe me, rich is better.


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