4 Tamuz 5781 / Monday, June 14, 2021 | Torah Reading: Chukat
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Bechukotai: The Dollar on the Wall    

Bechukotai: The Dollar on the Wall

How many one-dollar bills do we see posted up in pizza stores, barbershops, and the like? Do we ever see the last dollar of the week or the year also posted?


Parshat Bechukotai

If Hashem would only talk to me I would know what He wants from me. How many times have we heard these or similar words being said, either by others or even by ourselves? Gaining clarity in this world seems to be almost impossible and leaves many of us with an overwhelming sense of inescapable confusion. Interestingly, there are lessons in this week's Torah reading which seem to contradict our inclination of giving in to such doubts.

In this week's Torah reading, we are taught about the frightening consequences of not fulfilling our responsibilities as established by the Torah. The repercussions are intense and serious and leave us with little doubt that our relationship with Hashem is not to be taken casually. On even a basic reading of this section one part of the retribution is particularly difficult to understand. The Torah paints for us the downward spiral of those Jews that distance themselves first from learning Torah, subsequently from the performance of mitzvot, and finally from a belief in Hashem Himself. The Torah outlines a seven step process of spiritual degradation and the terrible fate that befalls us for having dropped these seven levels. The verses describe that measure for measure we will be punished for the seven transgressions we performed. Rashi details how each of the hardships mentioned add up to the number seven. This seven step punishment/wake-up call is a chilling response to the seven steps of spiritual slumber the Jewish people have taken.
If the seven punishments are to be effective in waking us, we would assume that such a pattern should carry great significance. If not, there is punishment without a window of understanding. Based on numerous sources that is something that Hashem, our Healer, does not do. However, if we attempt to picture individuals or groups going through such suffering, it seems difficult to picture that they would have the clarity to count the seven afflictions and then match them with the seven spiritual steps that led them away from Hashem. It seems that Hashem is teaching us that even in the greatest of difficulties we have the ability to hear Hashem "talking" to us. Our job is to listen. This inability or unwillingness to see the interconnections of life reveals a callousness that itself is a cause for continued tribulations.
Apparently, Hashem doesn't need to "directly" communicate with us through forms of prophecy or the like. He wants us to know we have the ability to hear Him in all circumstances. There are many ways of seeing His loving, guiding hand, not the least of which is to constantly pay attention and focus on the occurrences in our lives as a personalized lesson to teach us something essential about ourselves and our worlds.
However, Hashem didn't leave this development of awareness to chance or to our own perceptions. In general, when the Torah wants us to develop a certain conscious awareness, there are always specific guidelines how to achieve it. For example, the Torah wants us to love for every Jew. The obvious question to any thinking person is, 'how?' To accomplish this goal there are clear instructions about giving free loans, participating in weddings and, Heaven forbid, funerals, etc. Through these specific commandments, our sensitivities expand to the point that we are able to truly love one another...
Based on this rule, what means did the Torah give to develop an awareness of Hashem in our lives? At the very end of this week's Torah reading is a requirement to give ma'aser- a tenth of our animals to the Temple. This is very similar to our obligation of giving a tenth of our earnings to charity. A farmer who has numerous animals born to his flocks is required to count nine animals and then designate the tenth for the Temple. Usually we would imagine that giving a tenth should be the first animal but the Torah tells us otherwise. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch has a beautiful explanation based on a simple grammatical insight.
The word for "a tenth" in Hebrew is "asirit" (from the word "eser"-ten, "asirit"- a tenth). The word "ma'aser" (the tithe just mentioned) really means the final tenth. It is that unit which actively completes the first nine tenths making it into an entire unit. (The grammarians are recommended to see Rabbi Hirsch's commentary for his proof.) According to this grammatical insight, the final animal is the ma'aser. That tenth animal reminds us that every last animal belonging to that farmer, not just the first, is from Hashem's loving grace. We often feel the blessing that Hashem gives us at the beginning of any activity or business and lose that focus by the time we finish our activity or business deal. How many one-dollar bills do we see posted up in pizza stores, barbershops, and the like? Do we ever see the last dollar of the week or the year also posted up? Based on the wonderful institution called ma'aser we give a tenth of our animals (and our earnings) to develop within ourselves an important awareness. The giving of this final tenth is Hashem's specific way of helping us remember that everything at all times is from Him.
This is one of the special means that Hashem gave us to develop an awareness, consciousness, and sensitivity of His presence in our lives. Through our giving charitably- from our first to our last dollar- as well as looking for the messages Hashem is constantly sending us, we will hopefully realize that Hashem truly talks to each of us. May we merit to hear His loving messages.

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