Man’s True Failure

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Parshas Bechukosai warns man of divine punishments for his failure. But what precisely is man’s true failure? Rashi comments on Lev. 26:14:

“BUT IF YOU WILL NOT HEARKEN UNTO ME”:  This refers to laborious Torah study in order to fathom the textual interpretation of the Sages. [You will be punished] if you will not hearken unto Me to study the Torah industriously as I command you. 

And in this verse, what is the meaning of the word “Me”?  It implies that your disobedience is directed against Me. The word “Me” is used only in the case of such a one who knows his Master and rebels against Him. Similarly in reference to Nimrod: (Gen. 10:9) “A mighty hunter before the Lord” which means that he knew God and yet purposely rebelled against Him. Similarly in reference to the men of Sodom: (Gen. 13:13) “And the men of Sodom were evil and sinful against the Lord exceedingly.”  They knew their Master and yet, intentionally rebelled against him.

Rashi suggests the entire chapter containing these threats of punishment is addressed only to people like Nimrod and the men of Sodom, not to one who sins against God unwittingly. Yet, this condemnation of one who fails to “toil in Torah” requires attention. Although failure to toil alone without rebellion doesn’t meet with this degree of severe curses, one who does not toil in Torah study but studies casually, is committing an error.

God designed man with the capacity to thoroughly enjoy his existence and attain full satisfaction. Satisfaction refers to a person who expends all his or her energies. When an artist is engrossed in painting a scene, he thinks of nothing else, as all his energies are fully expended. He is happy. The same is true when a hiker arrives at the summit of a beautiful mountain range. He views the 360º panorama with complete enjoyment. The novelty is refreshing. However, both the painter and hiker eventually find frustration; the novelty in the artistic expression and in the view respectively offers only momentary satisfaction, as the nature of all physical pleasures is temporal, and novelty fades. The human psyche requires regular stimulation, and change provides this. But paintings and scenic views are static; they eventually lose all pleasure, and this happens quite quickly. As Rabbi Israel Chait taught, the pursuit of wisdom is the one phenomenon which offers constant novelty, providing regular satisfaction. In wisdom, endless new ideas emerge as long as one is studying. This is non-stop novelty and is refreshing at every turn. This is Torah’s design. This is the daily pleasure of one who toils in Torah. 

Why must one “toil”? Strata of rock must be unearthed to finally descend to the depth of treasures. Torah too shares this design of layers. The deeper one studies, analyzes and thinks, the more creative thoughts and ideas he discovers. I experienced this once again last shabbos. A friend and I studied a few halachos (laws) in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. We pondered an apparent redundancy, which is unheard of in Maimonides’ writings: each of his new laws adds a new point; he does not repeat himself. We eventually identified a textual inconsistency, which lead to the answer (see “Maimonides’ Precision” in this Jewishtimes issue). King Solomon too taught, “If you seek it as silver and search for it as treasures, then you will understand the fear of God and you will find knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:4,5). 

Thus, if man does not toil in Torah study, but casual engages it, he has not engaged his mind to its full capacity, which is the required level of study to discover the greatest knowledge. God wants the greatest good for man. He designed us to make the greatest discoveries, but only through the greatest effort. Anything less is a failure.