Behar-Behukotai: Seeking Crowns

The majority of this Torah reading focuses on the rewards granted for observance of the Torah, and the punishments ordained for failure to observe. One might ask: When a person has internalized the self-transcendence of Bechukosai, of what interest is reward? As the Alter Rebbe would say: “I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.” (As quoted in Derech Mitzvosecho, Shoresh Mitzvos HaTefillah, ch. 40. See also Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah, ch. 10.)

In truth, however, only a person who genuinely “wants You alone” can appreciate the full measure of reward G-d has associated with the Torah and its mitzvos. As long as a person is concerned with his individual wants and desires, he will interpret the reward received for observance in that light. When, by contrast, a person has transcended his individual will, instead of these petty material concerns, he will appreciate the essential good and kindness which G-d conveys. (See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, p. 312)

This will create a self-reinforcing pattern, for the purpose of the rewards granted by the Torah is to enable an individual to further his study and observance. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:1.)

As this pattern spreads among mankind, we will merit the full measure of blessings mentioned in the Torah reading, with the return of our people to our land, led by Mashiach. Then “Your threshing season will last until your grape harvest…. You shall eat your bread with satisfaction…. I will grant peace in the land, and none shall make you afraid.” (Leviticus 26:5-6.)

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of the Torah
“Real Growth”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behukotai
Leviticus 26:3-27:34

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:11-12 (ESV)

What we get out of our relationship with God is a matter of perspective. As Rabbi Touger illustrates, how we perceive our “reward” depends on how we perceive ourselves. I’ve written a number of commentaries on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Lonely Man of Faith including my most recent missive, Burning the Plow. Soloveitchik presents “two Adams” using the two depictions of the creation of the first man in Genesis to show us two sides of the person of faith, the material and the spiritual. How we function in relation to God is how we see what God can do for us.

That probably sounds selfish, and it’s meant to be, at least in part.

The material man sees his relationship with God in terms of the world of here and now. He prays for success in business, good weather for planting crops, health for his family, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it is the general limit of the material man’s vision of his relationship with God. Man is the majestic steward of the world God created, and in return, he desires that God reward him with the benefits related to that creation.

It is written in Pirkei Avot Chapter 4, Mishna 2, that “the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah” (quoting Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld). Thus the continued cycle I have described in the previous paragraph is self-perpetuating as long as the perspective of the material man does not change.

And for many people of faith, it never does.

However, Rabbi Touger’s commentary, quoting the Alter Rebbe, shows us a different path:

“I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.”

On an emotional level, most of us can more or less understand this desire. We want to “feel” closer to God, to love Him with great zeal and to pour our heart and our life into pools of mystic wonder where only God exists. However, such a desire is difficult to grasp for very long for most of us, and we tend to believe that only saints or holy men or mystics who live in caves or monasteries can truly exist in a sustained state of “All I want is You alone.”

It’s hard for most Christians to imagine that Jews might express such a desire to want to walk with God alone, since Judaism is seen as a largely “behavioral” religion. An observant Jew tends to be defined by the mitzvot, by Torah study and obedience to the commandments. By contrast, Christians see their faith as more metaphysical, residing in the realm of belief and pure faith and grace, than in the raw mechanics of feeding a hungry person or donning tallit and tefillin before prayer.

But what about the Jews who first came to the realization that Jesus was and is the Messiah? Where is the meeting point between classic Judaism and traditional Christianity? Where did it all begin before man artificially split the two faiths (or was that split all part of God’s plan as Paul describes in Romans 11:25)?

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:6-8 (ESV)

What is this “crown of righteousness” of which Paul speaks? Is it a literal crown he wears in the Heavenly court? Is it the sheer experience of bliss and wonder in God’s “Gan Eden” (Garden of Eden or Paradise)? Or could it be “God and God alone?”

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. –Revelation 4:4 (ESV)

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne… –Revelation 4:9-10 (ESV)

The passages from Revelation 4 certainly seem to indicate real, physical crowns as the rewards, but this could be deceptive, since John’s vision of the Heavenly court and the events he witnessed is highly mystical and may not represent actual, literal actions. But look at what the twenty-four elders do with their crowns when they “give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne.” They “cast their crowns before the throne” and say:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

In addressing “the Lord God Almighty” (v 8), what does it mean to cast your crowns before His throne?

I’m no theologian so it’s impossible for me to say with any authority what John was really witnessing in this act of supreme worship of the Ein Sof God Almighty, “who was and is and is to come.” But let’s pretend what they were/are all doing was/is fulfilling this desire:

“I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.”

When I was a child and I tried to imagine Heaven, I thought it sounded pretty boring. There was nothing to do there except constantly worship God. I thought it sounded like one, infinitely long church service where you had to sit in a hot sanctuary in sticky, itchy clothes, and be quiet, and listen to organ music, and pray and recite stuff, and endlessly say:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”

Didn’t anybody ever have fun in Heaven? What kind of reward was all this “holy, holy, holy” stuff anyway?

Most children tend to be “material man,” lacking the ability to see beyond their immediate, temporal needs and desires. Many adults, even in the community of faith are like this, too.

Beyond majestic, material man is the person seeking to simply walk with God; who perceives his path as illuminated by an ineffable light. When we desire “God alone” there is no way we can truly understand what we are asking for. Who could possibly imagine what the crowns of Paul or the elders in John’s vision actually were, and if they existed materially or not? I choose to believe that there is so much more to the rewards awaiting covenantal, spiritual man and that, attempting to imagine them from the viewpoint of the material human being, we miss the point completely.

Pray not for Heaven or for Paradise or for crowns of gold. Let your only desire for reward be God Himself.

Then let awe and wonder in every corner of your existence take hold and realize that He is already here. Life is a miracle and your soul is the soul of your Creator. Once you know this, the mitzvot will take care of themselves for they will be inseparable from the ineffable light of God.

He could have made a world where the nature of each thing may be deduced from its parts. A predictable, orderly world. A world devoid of wonder. And then we would say, “Things are this way because they must be this way.” G-d would be a stranger in His own world.

Instead, at each step a whole new world emerges, one we could never have predicted from anything we knew before. Until we must conclude that our finite world somehow contains infinite possibilities, that both nothing and everything is possible, that things are the way they are only because He desires they be that way.

He has made our world wondrous, so that it has room for Him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Unnatural Nature of Things”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

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