Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 27th Iyyar 5715, 16th May 2015
Here we are, having waded through the whole book of Vayikra, the priestly code, with its sacrificial prescriptions for sins of all types, dealing with bodily afflictions, forbidden relationships and impurities in general. Last week we read about the importance of giving the land a rest, and about caring for those who are in financial trouble. In today’s reading we complete what should logically have been the final book of the Torah, with an inevitable quid pro quo. Follow the laws and be blessed. Ignore them and be cursed. And we are given the blessings and the curses. After this final warning, we should head right into the promised land. And this tidy package might have been sufficient, if not for a few glitches en route, especially the spies.
In essence, this section of Vayikra lays down the basis for all the prophets in the Bible: because of the people’s sins destruction will come upon them (often in language that evokes the plagues in Egypt) as well as exile among the nations. This, of course, is the flip side of the “you were slaves in Egypt” theme: if you act like God’s servants now, you will be rewarded as the Israelites were in their coming out of Egypt; if you do not, you will be treated like the Egyptians.
The aces in the hole for the Israelites, those things that will help to assure God’s welcome at any time the nation finally decides to repent, are fourfold: there are Yaacov, and Yitzhak and Avraham – and the land. Why were our forefathers are listed in reverse order of the Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov we usually find? One commentary notes that Yaacov engaged in learning and implementing the precepts of the Torah in the real world. If we can’t do that, perhaps we can concentrate on the ritual, which is what Isaac represents, and that action will suffice to bring us back to the right path. And if we can’t do that, then if we just live our lives based on chesed – good works, like Avraham, that will be sufficient. But even if we are unable to reconstruct our lives around any of the three, we have a fourth option. We are reminded here that whether or not the Israelites observe the seven-year cycles and the Jubilees, the land will certainly receive the rest it deserves – if not now then later. The Israelites will enjoy great bounty if they observe these sabbatical periods, and will be exiled if they do not, but the Land will not suffer because of the Israelites’ actions. God’s covenant with the land is unconditional, and if all else fails, the people’s connection to the land will evoke God’s compassion.
I think it would not be off the mark to say that many among us do not live up to the standards of Yaacov, Isaac and Avraham. But think of the influx of hundreds of thousands – of millions – of people to this land, their desire to be here (and not only for the benefits they may receive as new olim). This in truth represents a genuine reawakening of the spirit, first for the land and perhaps later for greater involvement.
As we have been dealing with the positive side of the parsha, let us also consider what precedes the tochecha, the exhortation. It’s the blessing that we will receive if the Israelites adhere to the mitzvoth. It is much shorter than the blessing preceding the even longer exhortation in Devarim. In today’s parsha it is no more than 11 sentences but the message it transmits about what it means to be blessed is eye-opening. “You will eat your food (bread) to the point of satisfaction, and [you will] live securely in the land. I will grant peace in the land so that you will sleep without fear.” These are two of the blessings.
Peace, whatever it means in political terms today, was and remains our aspiration. The personal, individual meaning of peace is no less tangible today than 3500 years ago. I will grant peace in the land and this will allow you to sleep without fear. How simple but profound. Think of our fellow citizens living in the settlements around Gaza, with the fear of missiles raining down from the air and of tunnels spewing forth Hamas terrorists from the ground. To be able to sleep without fear is a dream they wish could come true.
Nor is the message limited to our land today. Think of the thousands of times that Jews could not sleep in peace because of the dangers that lurked outside. This is a message that encompasses the very essence of peace without and peace within.
No less brilliant is the preceding sentence which says: “you will eat your bread to the point of satisfaction.” Eat to the point of satisfaction. That is something some children and adults may never experience because there isn’t food, the people cannot obtain enough food to satisfy their physical bodies. This is less apparent in western countries but it does exist and the threat of lack of food is real for too many people.
Yet there is another cause of dissatisfaction that comes not from the stomach but from the mind. The food we eat, abundant though it may be, just does not do it for us. And not because it’s junk but because we actually WANT something else, whether it is emotional satisfaction, or social position, or love, and so we eat food in its place. But it doesn’t satisfy. It can’t.
And so the blessing in our parsha is especially inclusive and soothing. Eat and be satisfied, both physically and emotionally. Let our hungers be of the type that can be assuaged, so that at the end of the day, we can all be sated, and then we can all lie down and sleep without fear.