Torah teaches we must keep eyes on the prize

BY RABBI HYIM SHAFNER

This week’s Torah Portion, Bichukoti, outlines the national blessings that the Jewish people will enjoy if they observe God’s commandments and the curses that will afflict them if they do not. The blessings promise proper rain, crop growth and national security, whereas the potential curses depict the converse.

The Jewish people at this point in their desert journey are only a year or so outside of Egypt. They are still standing in the vicinity of Mount Sinai, having worshiped the golden calf and then received instructions about, and engaged in, the building of the Tabernacle. Now they are about to start the short walk toward the Promised Land. In several Torah Portions the people will come to the land of Israel and send in spies, ostensibly to proceed with their entry into the land.

We, of course, know how it will go. That due to the spies’ bad report about the land the Jewish people will be doomed to spend 40 years in the desert, but they do not know this now. They are at this moment turning their eyes from the base of Mount Sinai toward the land of Israel and a landed life and free society in their land.

It is at this first moment of turning their eyes toward Israel that Moses tells them two things: last week’s Torah Portion, the laws of the sabbatical year, and this week’s Torah portion, the national blessings and curses. Why are these told to the people now? Why not wait until they come to the land to tell them the laws of the sabbatical year and to speak of reward and punishment? And why specifically these laws?

Moshe’s message is a powerful one. The Jewish people are about to leave behind their slave mentality and begin the movement toward their land. They will soon become farmers on their own land, an autonomous society, harvesters of crops, dealers in the marketplace and traders of commodities. Though exciting from the perspective of national development, the spiritual danger of such a phase looms large. It is difficult for anyone to live in this world of commerce and keep their eyes on the why of living, and not just on the how.

Moses tells the people at this moment, their first moment of really turning toward the land, that they must keep their eyes on the prize. Entering the land means not just autonomy and creation, plowing and harvesting, running a society, working for six years of every seven and six days of every week, though that can be holy, but also to work toward their bigger spiritual mission. That there is a day not to work and a year not to work is the first thing a people must know. That the six days and years of labor are only a means, but so often become ends in themselves is the first message the Jewish people must learn. Let us, on this Shabbat, reflect upon our own lives and all that we accomplish, produce, and possess, and think of what our bigger picture is. Let us each refocus ourselves on our life’s why and not just its how.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

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