When Jon Batiste won the well deserved Grammy for Best Album, his speech was beautiful. He got up there, and in such an aidel way, and shared: “Wow. Wow. Thank you. You know I really, I believe this to my core: there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most. It’s like a song or an album is made, and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most. I mean, man. I like to thank God. I just put my head down and I work on the craft every day. I love music. I’ve been playing since I was a little boy. It’s more than entertainment for me; it’s a spiritual practice. And there’s so many people that went into making this album. My grandfather’s on the album, my nephews, my dad is here. My executive producer, Ryan Lynn, right here. Come here, man. I don’t want to just be up here by myself. I didn’t do it by myself.”1 Then Ryan Lynn, who lives in my neighborhood, comes up wearing a kippah, hugs Jon and sits right back down.
It was a beautiful moment, a kiddush Hashem. What Jon shared is true: music and experiences and lessons do reach people in their lives when they need them most. That is the very definition of Hashgacha Prati/Divine Providence. A few days ago it hit me— I thought: faith fuels the future, fear stirs the past. When we experience something or resonate with something that speaks to an experience we are going through, it’s human emotion and connection that validates some of our own hurt and healing. With that validation we can realize everyone goes through it. And as Nas reminds us, “You gotta appreciate the moments; bad times don’t last.”2 But we have to lean into faith that the heavy moments pass and open us up to a newer and better path.
The Benefits of Bitachon
Faith in the future also brings the future we want. If we resist, we are blocking possibilities, but when we open ourselves up to the infinite possibilities that we are often too blinded by the past to actually see, then we can actually manifest better for ourselves. It’s when we stir in the past that fear blocks the infinite goodness that the future holds. When, in this parashah, Hashem mentions keeping His statutes as a way for the rain to fall for us, it’s because the rain is already for us, but for it to rain down blessings, we need to be open to it falling.
Last week, we covered the importance of releasing control and connecting, this being the purpose of Shabbat and Shemittah. This week with parashat Bechukotai (“My statutes”), we learn how to truly connect and how this unification brings blessings. It’s funny because thinking of Jon Batiste’s synchronicity and listening to Kendrick Lamar’s new album, which has been speaking to me on many levels, I can’t help but think of the chorus of “Die Hard,” imagining it being a response to the first few pesukim of this parahash, singing out to Hashem:
I hope I’m not too late to set my demons straight
I know I made you wait, but how much can you take?
I hope you see the God in me, I hope you can see… 3
This parashah spells out the blessings that await if we follow what Hashem has laid out for us so clearly, if we focus on the part of us that is the Godly soul, but it also spells out what can happen if we disconnect from our Godly soul and become slaves to our Animal soul.
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֔י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם….וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם
If you follow My statutes, and faithfully observe My commandments…I will provide you with rains in their season…4
This is a curious verse, since if the purpose of it is to teach us to keep the mitzvot, then wouldn’t it suffice to say “follow my statues”? It would seem superfluous to add “keeping Hashem’s commandments.” This is a question by Sifri as stated by Rashi. The answer is that there is keeping the mitzvot and the action of doing or not doing what is commanded as mitzvot ase (the commandments to actively do) and mitzvot lo taʿase (the commandments to not do). The verse is meant to cover both the studying of the Torah and its mitzvot as well as keeping them lishmah (for their own sake) and for the sake of giving delight to Hashem.
Mitzvot are divided into three categories: chukim, mishpatim, and eidot. In the pasuk, it’s written Bechukotai, which is the name of this parashah, and has the root of chukim. Chukim are the mitzvot for which no reason is given and we cannot rationalize. These are a distinct minority in the Torah. The overwhelming majority are of the other two categories, as the Torah was given in a way for human beings to comprehend. The most enigmatic of these chukim is the ritual of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, which was used for ritual purification.
Mishpatim are rational mitzvot and, even without the Torah, would eventually surface as the only sustainable societal precept. This includes the commandments against theft and murder. Eidot are the mitzvot that are dedicated to remembering events and/or ideals. This includes observing the Shabbat as a reminder of Hashem’s creating the world, just as Pesach is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. These are not practices we would have necessarily thought of ourselves, but they are logical, unlike chukim that are beyond our comprehension.
Interestingly, it happens to be in parashat Mishpatim that I wrote, “it seems that we are all in various states of Divine disconnect. Some might even say we are spiritually sick. We attempt to heal, but it is a long journey and often feels impossible. When we attempt to heal our physical selves, it is in much the same way of doing and then hearing/seeing/understanding– when a doctor prescribes the medication we need to heal ourselves, we take it in good faith; we don’t first go to medical school, researching every element of it and only take the medication afterward. If that were the case, we would remain sick, no doubt getting worse and worse. We take it in faith, because it benefits our physical selves and isn’t contingent on our knowledge of its inner workings. In fact, by taking it, we can start to see clearer, feel better, and get a better understanding of how the medicine helped.5 It is the same with our spiritual selves– the more we are in the space of na’aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will listen/learn) with the mitzvot, the more elevated our spirit, and by virtue of that, our physical selves, will be.”
That is the emphasis on Bechukotai and chukim, as even the mitzvot that we cannot rationalize or comprehend, even those we most follow, for in those we can show our full faith, connect and reap the benefits both in this world and in the next.
In Lukkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe interprets the term bechukotai as related to the word chakikah which means “engraved”. This is meant to teach us that not only are we commanded to keep the mitzvot, but we have to labor in the study and learning of Torah until it is engraved within us. We write the letters of the Torah on parchment, and, though independent of the parchment, they become united with the parchment. That is the process of continuing the tradition of writing the Torah. Engraving on a deeper level is when the letters are not an independent entity, as they cannot be separated from the object they have been engraved into. The two become one and that is what bechukotai is about: it is when we become one with the Torah that is Hashem in this world.
Last week, I was going back to the beginning of Tanya where it teaches exactly this point in Chapter Four, Section Two, “Merging with God.” Chapter Four discusses the importance of the “outer self,” the “garments” of ourselves we express through thought, speech and action. And it stresses the importance of it as completing the “inner self,” which is intellectual and emotional conviction. To simply love and revere Hashem is not enough— Bechukotai comes to teach us the importance of expression, not only word and action, but through dveykut (a clinging which comes from a true understanding).
The Zohar teaches that “the Torah and God are totally one.”6 The Alter Rebbe expounds on this, stating that the Torah, which seems to be a glimmer of the Divine, is actually the wisdom and will of God, and so it is completely one with God Himself. It seems counterintuitive for an Infinite Light to be one with a finite element on earth given for us, but that is what infinite transcendence is, as the Rambam says, “He and His wisdom are one.” Hashem is simultaneously the knower, the power to know, and the known.
When Kendrick Lamar’s song pleads, “I hope you see the God in me,” it’s alluding to the fact that we are all made in God’s image and if we could remember that when we engrave ourselves with Torah, as the parashah insists, we become unified with our Source. We can become light and see the light in each other, and that brings blessings to us all. But this is only done when we tap into and focus on the part of us that is Godly and not the garment of it which is animalistic.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reminds us that the purpose of this life is to uplift the physical and animalistic part of ourselves to serve our spiritual selves, and in the first pasuk of our parashah, immediately following the reminder to keep Hashem’s commandments, we are told that blessings will follow. One can ask, Why the material blessings for the spiritual pursuits? Why bless the body for the achievements of the soul, if the soul is more important and a separate entity? The answer lies in the realities of this world, and that the soul cannot attain the spiritual heights by itself. In this world, it needs the body; the body is the garment that facilitates its elevation. It is indeed the only way for a person to remain in the physical world while engaging in spiritual devotion. It’s the delicate balance of ratzo ve’shov, which means “to run and to return,” which we covered a few weeks ago in Acharei Mot. The physical act of eating keeps the body and soul together so that spiritual growth can take place. Rabbeinu teaches that if a person strives to find Hashem and is worthy, the person’s eating can elevate them to a level of desire and will for Hashem that transcends many other spiritual attainments. And in such a case, the person’s physical desires not only support their spiritual longings but actually mirror them.7
The Reflection of Water
וְאִם־לֹ֥א תִשְׁמְע֖וּ לִ֑י וְלֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַמִּצְוֹ֖ת הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ וְאִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֣י תִּמְאָ֔סוּ וְאִ֥ם אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֖י תִּגְעַ֣ל נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם לְבִלְתִּ֤י עֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י לְהַפְרְכֶ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃ אַף־אֲנִ֞י אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־זֹּ֣את לָכֶ֗ם וְהִפְקַדְתִּ֨י עֲלֵיכֶ֤ם בֶּֽהָלָה֙ אֶת־הַשַּׁחֶ֣פֶת
But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments. And if you despise My statutes and your souls detest My laws, so that you stop performing My commandments, you will have broken my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you….”8
It says in Mishlei, “As water reflects face to face, so does the heart of man to man.”9 There is a reciprocal relationship, the one bringing about the other. We mirror each other, just as one good deed brings another in its wake, the reverse is also true. As we read these pesukim, outlining exactly how to act in this world, and when that is aligned the blessings rain down from above, as water reflects water, the pesukim outline that if we deny the truth, the light, and life itself, in that sense, the same reflects back to us in this world.
There was a son of a tzaddik, ten years old, he loved to hear his father read the Torah, even when it was the Tochacha (the vivid curses). One year, his father was sick and unable to read the Tochacha, so someone else read the Torah in his place. When his son heard the Tochacha, he fell to the ground and fainted. He was bedridden for months. Once recovered, he was asked why for the first time the Tochahca had such an effect on him. He replied, “Every year, my father reads the Tochacha, and when my father reads it, I hear only blessings.”
We have to realize it is the same with us: when we realize the “bad” is for our good, it is our Abba (Hashem) putting us through a lesson for our ultimate growth and to put us on the right path. Then we are able to have the emunah/faith and bitachon/trust that it is all for our own good. Like a tzaddik, we can take any temporal misery with joy as the concealment of good that will reveal itself soon enough.
The Alter Rebbe explains that all the tochacha in this parashah are in fact blessings.10 The Tzemach Tzedek draws an analogy of this, as recorded in the Talmud, when R. Shimon Bar Yochai sent his son to receive blessings from R. Yonatan ben Asmai and R. Yehudah ben Gerim. When his son returned, he complained that he did not receive blessings at all, quite the opposite, it felt more like tochacha. His father, R. Shimon, replied that all their words were truly blessings, and as the Tzemach Tzedek explains, because the blessings were so sublime, they were only able to be expressed in such a way. The Talmud asks if they were so sublime that they needed to be disguised as tochacha, how could R. Shimon interpret them so openly?
It’s exactly this lesson that we learn in the Tanya: that afflictions and suffering in this world are really the goodness of the ‘hidden world’, the aspect of the Yud (י) and Heh (ה) in the Havayah (the holy four letter name of Hashem, the Tetragrammaton), and it manifests as “a shade, and not as light and revealed goodness.” The Havayah is broken into two aspects: the first, the Yud (י) and the Heh (ה), signify that which is concealed— levels or worlds so sublime that they are hidden and concealed in our current reality. The second half, the letters Vav (ו) and Heh (ה), represent the revealed levels or worlds that are able to manifest and be seen by us as good in our current reality.11 When we accept the suffering in this world with emunah and even joy, then as it says in Shoftim, “they that love Him are as the sun going forth in its might,”12 which is as the world to come, where the suffering we endure in this world will be seen for what it truly is: manifest goodness.
R. Shimon bar Yochai’s soul’s mission was to reveal pnimiut haTorah (the hidden inner dimensions of the Torah), and in this, souls experience elements of the illumination reserved for the world to come in their present personification. For this reason, R. Shimon was able to see the reality of the concealed blessings the Rabbi’s had given to his son. We, of course, are not on the level of R. Shimon and able to bring down the concealed in such a way as he did with the Zohar, but the lesson is that tochacha, which is seemingly only for our suffering, is actually for our ultimate good, and when we can truly believe that, then we can see the blessings that it will bring and exist in it with joy.13
The Root Of Love
The two aspects of the heh (ה) in the Havayah bring to mind this necklace that I received this week. It’s gorgeous and its meaning is deep, so I just had to have it after I saw my friend Joshua Reitzenstein wearing it. His story with this piece of jewelry (which you can see to the right) is pretty amazing. Joshua was leading a Birthright trip and the kids saw him admiring the necklace, in a very deep and profound way, as if he was divinely drawn to it. They were able to feel the connection he had with it, and so they secretly bought it for him and gifted it to him on the last day of their trip. He wore it for years, and it always kept him connected to being of service and giving. After a few years, he lost the necklace. But then his grandfather came to him in a dream on Rosh Hashanah. Joshua explained to his grandfather how he had lost this precious necklace and just then his grandfather smiled and pulled the necklace out from under his shirt and put it around Joshua’s neck and then, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, he suddenly disappeared.
His grandfather had passed away a few years earlier, and it was a gift to see him again. He woke up to the first rain of the season. The dream state was great, but he woke up with the necklace on his mind. Somehow, the designer, Avraham Loewenthal, heard this story and immediately sent him a new one.
Much like Bechukotai outlines the two ways we could choose to act in this world, one bringing blessings and the other blocking them, the necklace signifies how we can emulate our Source. The upper and lower heh (ה) depicted in this necklace and in the world are about giving, receiving, and oneness.
Kabbalisitcally, the letters that spell out the Divine name represent aspects of our inner consciousness: the upper heh (ה) represents our desire to give and the lower heh (ה) represents our desire to receive. Our Source perpetually gives without the need or desire to receive, and this correlates and is mirrored in the extent to which we give.
Meanwhile, the lower heh (ה) ascending to the upper heh (ה) represents our spiritual awakening to pure giving and unconditional love. This inner transformation when manifested enables us to experience the infinite goodness that is the source of all reality.
The lower heh (ה) is empty because if we focus simply only on receiving, we are hollow. When we recognize the giving nature of the universe and that it’s imperative to be in alignment, we can discover that, as we attain deeper levels of giving and love, we attain wholeness and deeper levels of divine union. This is why the Hebrew word for love, Ahava, has ‘hav’ meaning “to give” at its root.
You’ll notice the upper heh (ה) is engraved into the necklace. It’s only when we attach ourselves in such a way to our Source, through learning the Torah and keeping the mitzvot lishmah, that we can become love, become light and manifest blessings for ourselves and each other. Oftentimes, I’ll free verse poetic around my dvars as I write. So,I thought to end this Dvar, I would share this week’s:
on the finite
to the giving
on the ones who create
space for it.
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Notes & Sources
- Jon Batiste, Grammy 2022 speech for “Best Album”
- “Moments” song by Nas
- “Die Hard” song by Kendrick Lamar
- Leviticus 26:3
- Doing or Understanding – Which Comes First? by Rabbi Nissan Dovid Dubov
- Zohar 1, 24a; 2, 60a
- Likuttei Halachot V, p. 426
- Leviticus 26:14-16
- Proverbs 27:19
- Likkutei Torah, Bechukotai p. 48b
- Zohar I:21a, Tikkunei Zohar 22:63b, Tanya ch. 26
- Judges 5:31
- An Anthology of Talks, Likkutei Sichos p. 209-211