"Cause and Effect"
Our parsha begins by telling us that if we walk in God's statutes and keep His commandments, then, the rains will fall in their seasons and the land will yield her produce and the trees of the field will give its fruit (Bechukosai, 26:3-4).
It seems strange that Hashem would promise these blessings to us if we obey His laws because the Gemara (Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 29b; Rebbi Ya'akov) says that there is no such thing as reward for mitzvos in this world. This physical world doesn't even have the capacity of rewarding us for even the "smallest" of mitzvos. Reward is given only in the next world. If this is true, how can Hashem promise us in this parsha to reward us with rains and produce for keeping His commandments?
Additionally, why would Hashem promise to reward us for keeping His mitzvos? In Pirkei Avos (1:3), Antiginos Ish Socho says that, ideally, we should serve Hashem without any expectation of receiving reward. If the goal is to serve God altruistically, why would Hashem set us up for failure by promising us gifts for doing His will? By promising us these prizes for keeping His laws, Hashem is encouraging us to act for ulterior motives. Doesn't this undermine the ultimate purpose of performing mitzvos?
Grammatically speaking, the opening words of this parsha are difficult. It says, "Im Bechukosai Teyleychu" (if you walk in My statutes). Now, we don't really "walk" in mitzvos, rather, we "fulfill" them. If so, apparently, it should have said, "Im Bechukosai Tikayemu" (if you fulfil My statues). Why the word "teleychu?"
Moreover, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba, Parshas Bechukosai, 35:4) focuses on the word in our verse "Bechukosai" (statutes), which refers to Torah law. The Midrash points out that this same word appears in other verses which talk about the "chukos" (laws) of nature that Hashem set into place with respect to the heavens, Earth, sun, moon, ocean, sand, and the great deep (See Yirmiya, 33:25; 31:34; 5:22; and see Mishlei, 8:29; 8:27). What is the connection between the chukos (laws) of the Torah and the chukos (laws) of nature?
The parsha continues to say that if we reject the laws of the Torah, then all these curses will come, God forbid (Bechukosai, 26:15). At the end of the curses the verse says, "And I will remember My covenant with Ya'akov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham; I will remember" (Bechukosai, 26:42). This means that through zechus Avos (Patriarchal merits) we will be rescued from our tragic predicament.
This brings us to another question. Why do we always rely upon the zechuyos (merits) of the Avos to be rescued? There have been so many other tzaddikim in Jewish history. What about Yosef Hatzaddik, Chanoch, and Noach? They were also our ancestors. Why don't we ever get saved in their merits?
The Nesivos Shalom (Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, b.1911, Belarus, d.2000 Eretz Yisrael) shares a fundamental idea. He says that the laws of nature that Hashem created and set into motion are crucial for our survival. The slightest deviance from the laws of nature could result in global catastrophe.
He goes on to say that those laws of nature are enrooted in the laws of Torah. After all, Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world (Bereishis Rabba, 1:1, Reish Lakish). This means that nature and its laws stem from the Torah. Since the laws of nature are an outgrowth of the laws of Torah, to the extent that we abide by the Torah's laws, to that degree, the laws of nature will also be upheld and run smoothly.
The Gemara (Pesachim, chap. 6, "Eilu Devarim", pg. 68b) supports this notion when Rebbi Elazar says that if not for the Torah, the laws of heaven and earth would revert back to chaos (Yirmiya, 33:25; Yehoshua, 1:8; Bereishis, 1:2). This means that fulfillment of Torah and mitzvos cause a ripple effect causing the laws of nature to also be fulfilled. The reverse is also true. When we ignore the laws of Torah, the laws of nature are also ignored which results in chaos. Everything has a cause and effect.
Based on this, the Slonimer Rebbe goes on to say something which will be a paradigm shift for many people. He says that when we witness natural disasters, they are not to be viewed as "punishments," rather, they are to be regarded as "natural consequences" of our actions or as a result of inaction.
In other words, the system that God created was one in which the laws of nature respond to the laws of Torah. Every action has a reaction. When we keep Torah law, the laws of nature work harmoniously. However, when we reject Torah law, the laws of nature begin to deviate from the norm, creating terrible tragedies.
Perhaps we could suggest that there is a hint from our parsha which supports this idea. Hashem tells us that if we do not heed Torah law, then we will be cursed "sevenfold" (Bechukosai, 26:21 & 28). Why is the expression "sevenfold" used to demonstrate that there will be "many" curses? Rashi has one approach, but, perhaps we could add another reason. The number "seven" in Judaism represents "nature." This is because Hashem infused the laws of nature into the world during the "seven" Days of Creation. Therefore, the pasuk stresses that the curses will be "sevenfold" to show that the curses are just a "natural" consequence of our actions, or lack thereof.
The Slonimer Rebbe says that this explains how Hashem could promise us rains and produce for keeping the Torah if there is no such thing as mitzva reward in this world. The Gemara is right, there is no reward for mitzvos in this world. However, in our parsha, when God promises rain when we keep the Torah, the rain is not a "reward," rather, it is a "natural consequence" of our actions.
This also explains why Hashem would promise rain for keeping the Torah if, ideally, we are supposed to serve Hashem with no expectation of receiving reward. Once again, the answer is that the Mishna is right, we are supposed to serve Hashem without the expectation of reward. However, in Parshas Bechukosai, Hashem is not "rewarding" us. Hashem is merely "informing" us that this is the way of the world. If we do Torah law, then natural law will follow suit.
This also addresses the Midrash which compared Torah law to natural law. They are very much connected to each other. The Laws of Nature are dependent on the Laws of Torah. If Torah law flows properly, then, the Laws of Nature will also flow properly.
After establishing that the natural world responds to our Torah observance, we must add that this is true on one condition. That condition is as follows. Only when we approach our Avodas Hashem with the attitude that we do the mitzvos not just for ourselves, not just for our families, not just for our friends, but for all Jews and for all people, in this generation and for all generations to come, only then, will our mitzvos impact the world. It's logical. Only when we do the mitzvos on a global level will our mitzvos effect the entire globe.
Doing Torah and mitzvos for others means that we want everybody to benefit from the mitzvos, not just ourselves. We want to share the positive energy that mitzvos generate with everybody.
This idea is found in the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov (Al Hatorah, Ohr Ganuz Latzaddikim, Parshas Ki Seitsei, #12) who said that we have found righteous people who returned to this world after they died to teach other people Torah (Zohar. Rav Hamenuna Saba and his son returned to teach the Rashbi Torah). Yet, other righteous people who died have not returned to this world to teach other people.
The difference between these two types of righteous people is as follows. Only righteous people, who when they were alive studied Torah, not just for themselves, but for everybody else, come back even after they die, because they are still dedicated to the people. However, righteous people who just studied for themselves, will not return after they die, because once they have perfected themselves, they have fulfilled what they set out to do. For them, there is no point in coming back to this world.
This explains why we always draw upon the merits of the Avos to rescue us from dire straits. It is because whatever the Avos did, with respect to their Avodas Hashem, was done not just for themselves, but for all of us. Although other righteous people may have also kept everybody else in mind, the Avos excelled in this area. Therefore, it is their merits that we depend upon for salvation.
Although the Gemara (Shabbos, chap. 5, "Bameh Biheima", pg. 55a, Shmuel) says that "zechus Avos" (Patriarchal merits) have been depleted, nevertheless, we still have "bris Avos" (Patriarchal covenant). The difference between the two is that a "zechus Avos" is what they did for us. However, "bris Avos" is the treaty that we enter into with them. Meaning, we made a pact with the Avos to follow in their footsteps by keeping others in mind when doing the will of God. Then, we create our own zechus to draw upon to save us from tragedy.
Perhaps we could add that the Ba'al Haturim (Bechukosai, 26:3) points out that the acronym of the first three words of our parsha, "Im Bechukosai Teyleychu" (if you walk in My statutes), spells the word "Avos." This teaches us to go or walk in the way of our Avos.
Perhaps we could use this Ba'al Haturim to answer why the word "teyleychu" was used instead of "tikayamu." It is because we are not speaking about the fulfillment of specific mitzvos in the beginning of our parsha. If we were, the correct word would have been "tikayamu," because one is "mekayem" (fulfills) a mitzva. However, we are being told in a more general term to "go" or to "walk" in the path of our Avos by keeping everybody else in mind when studying Torah and doing mitzvos.
Practically speaking, from today on, before doing at least one mitzva of our choice, let us recite the traditional introductory declaration prior to doing mitzvos which states, "For the sake of the sanctification of the Holy One Blessed is He and His Presence, in reverence and in love to unify the Name - yud-key with vov-key - in perfect harmony, b'shem kol Yisrael (in the name of all Israel)." These words mean that we are going to do this mitzva, not only for ourselves, but on behalf of all the Jewish people. Meaning, we want all Jews to benefit from the mitzva that we are about to perform.
The more we get into the habit of keeping everybody else in mind with our mitzva performance, the more our mitzvos will have a positive impact on the world.
So, may we all be blessed, naturally, to keep our families and the entire generation in mind as we go about our Avodas Hashem, so that it will make such a positive impact on this world, bringing down all the blessings, culminating with the Messianic Era when we will have the zechus of being reunited with our Avos once again.
Good Shabbos, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg