Parshas Bechukosai: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten - Say Please!
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם:
"If you walk in My statutes and keep My laws, then I will give you rain in the right time and the earth will give its produce."
How do you know if something is true? True means unchanging. If something is true then it is always true. Relationships work in the same way. True love stands the test of time. If love is conditional, if it dependent on the circumstances we find ourselves in, the moods we are in or the behavior of our spouses, then it is not true love.
So what is Hashem telling us in this weeks Parsha when He says "if" you walk in My statutes then you will receive tremendous blessings. Is God's love for us conditional on our behavior? God is the ultimate truth and it follows that His love must be true. If God's love is true how could it be conditional?
The Gemara in Avodah Zara (5a) explains our passuk a little bit differently. Rather than translating the word אִם to mean "if" the Sages translate it to mean please. It now becomes clear that Hashem's love for us is not conditional on our behavior but we are left with an equally troubling question. Is God polite? Does God need to entreat us to do His will? Now we are on the opposite side of the spectrum. Initially we considered that God's love for us was conditional and now it seems that God is asking us to do His Mitzvos. Does a commander ask his soldiers to charge into battle? We are commanded by God to do His Mitzvos. Why is God asking us to follow his will?
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten - Say Please!
Every word in the Torah is designed to help us serve Hashem and to perform His mission in this world. When we are asked to do something for another and the request begins with the word please we have two opportunities in front of us. The first opportunity is to perform the task but the second opportunity is to create a relationship with the one who asked us. Our bosses do not need to ask us politely to do our jobs. If we do our jobs we get paid. If we don't we get fired. There is only a functional relationship with our employers. If our bosses ask us politely it is only to foster a more pleasant working environment. But when someone we love asks us to do something for them and they ask in a fashion that let's us know we are important to them we run to do their bidding. The task is longer seen as menial or mundane. It's an opportunity to participate in a relationship. God wants us to do the Mitzvos and bring the world to its ultimate state of rectification but what that really means is that He wants a relationship with us. To simply perform God's mission is not enough. If we are not excited to do the Mitzvos then something is fundamentally off. We are not just soldiers running into combat because the General has commanded us to (though that is certainly true), we are God's betrothed and serving Him is an act of love. When God says please He is giving us the opportunity to come into contact with Him. Not only do we build a relationship with God but our performance of the Mitzvos is enhanced as well. Far from being a burden, the Mitzvah can now be performed with the passion that comes along with any meaningful relationship.
But I Don't Understand!?!
It is interesting to note that God specifically says please when it comes to chukim, statutes. As we all know the difference between chukim and mishpatim (laws) is that while mishpatim are readily understandable, chukim do not have a known reason. Why is it that Hashem asks us to please walk in the ways of his chukim?
Imagine the following scenario. A husband returns home from work and is given a list of jobs that his wife would like him to take care of before the night is over. The husband peruses the list to see what he needs to do and nods his head understandingly as he goes over each task. Take out the garbage, this makes sense. If the garbage is left by the front door the cats will tear it open and make a mess. Spend time doing homework with your son. Again, it makes sense. We are spending thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition and the child needs the extra help. Read German poetry by the fireplace? What in the world does she want that for? At this point the husband has two possible opportunities. He could flat out reject her request as nonsense or he could choose to follow her directions. If the husband rejects her request then he is also revealing that all of the other tasks he has performed were not meant to serve her. They made sense so he did them. In a way he is serving himself. But if the husband chooses to perform the task that has no apparent rationale he is revealing that everything else he had done was indeed for his wife. Why else would he fulfill such a ridiculous request?
And so it is with God as well. Are we serving God or are we serving ourselves? We often hear people talk about how meaningful the Mitzvos are. Shabbos is a beautiful day to be with your family without any distractions. Teffilah can be a very meaningful way to start your day. But what happens when we don't understand the Mitzvos? What happens when we see halacha as a bunch of arcane laws that have no bearing on our own lives? That's when we discover who we are really serving. Of course we want to know why God asks of us to perform these strange rites but we also recognize that the human mind is incapable of understanding God's infinite will. And maybe that's the point. Sometimes not understanding why we are performing the Mitzvos ensures that we are serving God and not serving ourselves. And as in any relationship when we are in service of another that invites them to serve us as well. And so God says to us, walk in the ways that you don't understand and I will give you what you need. Please.