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Parashat Bechukotai. 

Worldliness: Blessings for this World, or the Afterlife?


If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, 

I will grant your rains in their season

The earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. 

… I will grant peace in the land…

I will give the land respite from vicious beasts…

I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you (26:3-10)


Why does the Torah articulate the blessings and curses in this-worldly terms: if you keep the Torah your economy will succeed: if you fail to observe the laws, you will suffer military defeats, destruction and exile?




Rambam addresses this question. For Rambam the ultimate reward and punishment is other-worldly i.e. Olam Haba. The greatest gift is for the soul to unite with the source of all souls in the World to Come. The worst punishment is to lose Olam Haba.


So what's with the Torah's blessings and curses?


“The interpretation of all those blessings and curses is this way: As if saying, if you have served the Lord with joyfulness and observed His way, he will bestow in abundance these blessings upon you and set at a distance the curses from you, so that you be at leisure to grow wise in the wisdom of the Torah, and to busy yourselves therein, and so that you will merit life in the World to Come, and to do you good in the world which is all good, and prolong your days in the world which is unending, and you will find yourselves acquiring two worlds, to good living in this world, which will bring to a life in the World to Come, for if one does not acquire wisdom and good works here he has nothing else to acquire it with, even as it said: "For there is no work, no device, no knowledge nor wisdom in the grave (Ecc. 9.10). 


But if you have forsaken the Lord, and sinned, by eating, drinking, lewdness, and their like, he will bring upon you those curses and detach from you all blessings until you will end your days in confusion and dread, and your will have neither a heart of leisure nor a sound body to perform the precepts, so that you lose the life in the World to Come, as a consequence whereof you will have lost two worlds; for, as long as a man is occupied in this world with sickness, war and hunger he can not be engaged either in wisdom or in precepts, by which to acquire the World to Come.” (Hilchot Teshuva 9:1)


Essentially, worldly rewards make life easier. So a pious individual or group can dedicate his or her energies to earning the World to Come. The blessings foster hospitable conditions to spiritual growth and flourishing. In contrast, life's problems, misery and pain, are warnings to sinful people. And for the sinful people, the troubles serve not only as a warning, but over time as they intensify, they will distract people from the ability to focus on the spiritual. In the long term, they will forfeit somebody their place in the Afterlife.


What do you think of the Rambam? Are you satisfied with his answer?


For me, it is unsatisfying. 


First, it really seems not to reflect the biblical perspective. In other words, throughout the Torah it is precisely this-worldly reward and punishment which are the focus, not the Afterlife. 


In fact, the Torah doesn't mention the World to Come at all. No Olam Haba! Yes, there are passages which interpret various phrases as indicative of an Afterlife. But if we can recall that Israel emerged from an Egyptian culture, which had an active and powerful ideology and narrative of the Afterlife, had the Torah wanted to present an alternative it would have had ample room to offer a Jewish perspective. 




Rather, we might prefer to say that the Torah is invested specifically in this world. It deliberately avoids the Afterlife and draws our focus to this world. It wants us to understand that virtue in this world is virtuous because of what it achieves here and now; not in the Afterlife! Let us read this passage from Rav Soloveitchik:


"See what many religions have done to this world on account of their yearning to break through the bounds of concrete reality and escape to the sphere of eternity. They have been so intoxicated by their dreams of an exalted super nal existence that they have failed to hear the cries of "them that dwell in houses of clay" (Job 4:19), the sighs of orphans, the groans of the destitute. Had they not desired to unite with infinity and to merge with transcendence, then they might have been able to do something to aid the widow and orphan, to save the oppressed from the hand of the oppressor. There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one's attention from this world. ... Halakhic man craves to bring down the divine presence and holiness into the midst of space and time, into the midst of finite, earthly existence… Halakhic man apprehends transcendence. However, instead of rising up to it, he tries to bring it down to him." (Halakhic Man, Page 42)


Bechukotai takes our world seriously. The Torah takes our world seriously. It looks for us to perfect our society, our civilization, and even to sanctify it. Thus we bring blessing into our world when we create a blessed society; we ruin our world when we allow our actions and our society to act in degenerate ways.


When I consider this perspective, I recall the words of Rav Kook regarding his praise of a return to physicality, to sports and exercise. He says:


Only at and around the time of destruction of the Temple, when the Israelite collective was uprooted from its land and forced to recognize its destiny only in its abstract spirituality, was there implanted in a few the direction of seceding from temporal life for eternal life, and even there issued a heavenly protest. But with the arrival of the era of building the nation in its land, the practical requirement of political and social organization has become part of the agenda of the collective. These become principles of Torah, and the more the practical factors expand and solidify, the more the spirit of sanctity and true life will influence the world and life.


Great is our physical demand. We need a healthy body. We dealt much in soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected physical health and strength; we forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than holy spirit. We turned from active living, the clarification of the senses and the connection with physical, sensate reality, due to a fallen fear, due to lack of faith in the sanctity of the land. “Faith – this refers to the order of Zera’im – for one who believes in the Life of the Worlds and plants.” Our return will succeed only if it will be – with all its splendid spirituality – also a physical return (Orot Hatechiya ch. 26 and 35)


רק בזמן החרבן, וקרוב לו, שהחיל הישראלי נעתק מאדמתו והוצרך להכיר את תעודתו רק במעמדו הרוחני המופשט, הושרשה ביחידים הדרכה לפרישות מחיי שעה בשביל חיי עולם, וגם ע"ז יצאה מחאה שמימית. אבל כאשר הגיע התור של בנין האומה בארצה, והצורך המעשי של הסדורים המדיניים והחברתיים נעשה חלק מתכנית פעלי הכלל, הרי הם הם גופי תורה, וכל מה שיתרחבו הגורמים המעשיים ויתבססו יותר יפעל הרוח המלא קדושה וחיי אמת על העולם ועל החיים, ואור ישראל יאיר פני תבל בכליל יפעתו (כ"ו)


גדולה היא תביעתנו הגופנית, גוף בריא אנו צריכים, התעסקנו הרבה בנפשיות, שכחנו את קדושת הגוף, זנחנו את הבריאות והגבורה הגופנית, שכחנו שיש לנו בשר קודש, לא פחות ממה שיש לנו רוח הקודש. עזבנו את החיים המעשיים, ואת התבררות החושים ואת הקשור עם המציאות הגופנית המוחשית, מפני יראה נפולה, מפני חוסר אמונה בקדושת הארץ, "אמונת זה סדר זרעים - שמאמין בחי העולמים וזורע". כל תשובתנו תעלה בידינו רק אם תהיה, עם כל הוד רוחניותה, גם תשובה גשמית. (ל"ה)


For Rav Kook, Exile engendered an imbalance in Jewish thinking and in the lived experience of Judaism. Divorced from our land, we abandoned physicality for a detached spiritual existence. But this is not as things ought to be. Spiritual and physical are part of a single ecosystem, they are intrinsically interwoven. To value spirit exclusively is a distortion. I would suggest that the blessings and curses, physical blessings due to our keeping or abandoning God’s laws: the fusion of the spiritual - observance of God’s law - with socio-economics, with peace and war, with the pride and confidence of the nation, with the national spiritual aspirations - all this is the true integration of body and spirit to which the Torah aims.


Shabbat shalom!

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