“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a man expresses a vow, [pledging the] value of lives to the Lord…” (Vayikra 26:1-2)
The Book of Vayikra ends with a discussion of erech (valuation) vows. A person has the ability to pledge their “value” to the Temple. The Torah provides a framework based on age and gender, irrespective of a person’s abilities, profession or skill set.
Yet, we find a fascinating detail. The verse states:
“The [fixed] value of a male shall be as follows: From twenty years old until sixty years old, the value is fifty silver shekels, according to the holy shekel…And if [the person is] sixty years old or over, if it is a male, the value shall be fifteen shekel …” (Vayikra 26:3,7)
Why this significant shift in value? A man above the age of 60 loses closes to 2/3 of the value he possessed between the ages of 20-60. How are we to understand this change?
The Imrei Emes (Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, Rebbe of the Hasidic dynasty of Ger, 1866-1948) explains this dynamic. Every person has an intrinsic value. We each have a worth. Even if we make mistakes, bad decisions, fall and fail; we possess holiness and godliness within. This is the deeper meaning of erech vows. From the time a baby is 30 days old until one draws his last breath, (s)he has value. But our innate value is directly related to our ability to change. The power of change is the greatest gift God has given us. No matter what I have or haven’t done – I can become someone better and holier. Change is always possible, no matter when, no matter where. However, the reality is that the older we get, the more set in our ways we become, and the more difficult change becomes. As we get older change is still possible, it just may not be probable. My “value” is fundamentally linked to my ability to change. Therefore, the individual between 20-60 has the highest value. With them, the ability and probability of change is highest. During this period of life, we are still seeking out identity, perhaps not fully sure of who we are. Once the individual is over 60, the ability for change is still present but the danger of becoming set in one’s ways is a bit more pronounced and as such the erech value of such individual decreases.
In this last lesson of Sefer Vayikra God conveys to us, His beloved children, that we each have value. Too often we assume that our mistakes and missteps deprive us of worth, yet there is nothing further from the truth. We each have incredible value until we draw our last breath. The way to actualize and amplify our personal worth is to tap into the gift of change. The more we are willing to change, the more value our life has.
“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your food to satiety, and you will live in security in your land.” (Vayikra, 26:3-5)
It appears to be a simple formula: do what God asks of you and things will work out well; disobey and there will be catastrophic circumstances. Despite the simplicity of the message, there is an obvious yet profound theological issue; at times the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Life doesn’t always seem to follow the pattern articulated in the verse. But there is another simpler, more nuanced question I would like to focus on. We are taught in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers):
“Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you (1:3).”
The great sage, Antignos teaches us that one should not serve God for the sake of receiving reward! How do we reconcile this teaching with the verses in the beginning of these week’s Parsha?
The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim Attar, 1696-1743) explains that God isn’t promising reward, He is allowing us to share in the bounty we help to create through our dynamic spiritual service. When we serve God, fulfill the mandates and mitzvos of the Torah, we create blessing in this world. God is promising us a portion in the very blessing we help to create.
Perhaps, we can take this idea a bit farther. There is a concept found in rabbinic literature, b’derech she’adam rotzeh ley’lech, molichin oso (the path which a person chooses to take, is the path he is led down). God gives us the gift of bechira (free choice). We have the right to choose our direction and lifestyle and when we clearly articulate through word or deed the path we intend to take, God assists us in travelling down that road. As such, when we person decides to be holy, to live a meaningful life and positively impact the world, God helps him/her make this a reality. One of the greatest challenges we face in this temporal, physical world is seeing to our material needs. Anyone who has ever experienced financial hardship knows that monetary stress is not an issue, it becomes the issue. Financial stress impacts everything from shalom bayis (marital harmony), to self-esteem. For most of us, when there is financial stress, there is often little bandwidth for spirituality. When one is struggling financially it often takes all his inner strength to just keep his head above water. Perhaps, this is what God is telling us. Im b’chukosai tey’leychu, u’mitzvosai tishmiru, (If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them): if you make the conscious decision in word and deed to live a life of holiness, to find your inner spiritual strength, to become something beautiful and necessary, then, v’nasati gishmeychem b’itam (I will give your rains in their time). This is not a reward for your good deeds, this is the investment capital to allow you to continue on your journey of spiritual growth. God looks to us to make the decision about the people we want to be and lives we want to lead. If we make the right kind of decisions, if we are truly genuine in our desire to be something better, then He will help us along this path, removing some of the material obstacles which are often a source of stress.
Life is often not as black and white as articulated in the above-mentioned verses. There are many factors which go into God’s decision making and running of the universe. But the message is clear. Decide on the kind of person you want to be and life you want do lead. Articulate your goals and life aspirations. Decide how you are going to make the world a better place. Know in your heart, that if your decisions are the correct, God will help you along your life journey.
“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your food to satiety, and you will live in security in your land.” (Vayikra 26:3-5)
It seems to be a straightforward system; follow the commandments and statutes of God, and God will reward you with all types of material blessings. Conversely, if we don’t follow the laws and commandments, God will punish us. These verses raise many theological and ideological questions. Is this how the world really works? Don’t we find that at times the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? We often see people who seem to do all God wants and expects of them, yet, they have exceptionally difficult lives. This is the age-old question, deliberated by the sages throughout the generations. Yet, despite all the insights and explanations we have no real understanding other than to accept our inability to comprehend the ways of God.
But I would like to draw your attention to a different issue. The Torah seems to indicate that reward can (and perhaps, should) be part of our motivation for following the laws and commandments. However, we find a seemingly contradictory statement in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers):
“Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.” (1:3)
The great sage, Antignos teaches us that one should not serve God for the sake of receiving reward! How do we reconcile this teaching with the verses in the beginning of this week’s Parsha?
In discussing the obligation to honor one’s parents, the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) brings the story of an idolater named Dama ben Nisina. The Talmud relates that Dama was exceptionally wealthy and possessed precious stones that were needed for the breastplate (choshen) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). A rabbinic delegation approached Dama and made a generous offer for the precious stones. Dama responded that he could not sell them the stones as the key to the safe in which the stones were kept was under his father’s pillow, and his father was sleeping. Dama would not wake his father even for a small fortune. This, explains the Talmud, is the paradigmatic example of honoring one’s parents. But the story is not over. A year later, a red heifer (Parah Aduma) was born in Dama’s herd. The rabbis approached Dama, eager to purchase this rare animal. Dama responded, “I know that I can ask for all the money in the world and you (rabbis) would give it to me. But I will only ask for the money I lost for honoring my father.”
The commentaries point out Dama’s intriguing statement: “I will only ask for the money I lost for honoring my father.” This word choice provides us incredible insight into Dama’s personality. It is true he didn’t wake his father. But when the rabbis left, Dama felt like he had lost an incredible opportunity. When blessed with the red heifer he felt he was given the opportunity to be made whole. Dama was indeed a great man who clearly revered and honored his father. But he failed to comprehend the power of a good deed. He didn’t lose anything. Although he couldn’t sell the precious jewels, he earned a most incredible spiritual windfall.
This is the meaning of Antignos’ statement. When a servant works a full day, if the master claims he can’t pay, the servant feels both wronged (because of the non-payment) and that he wasted his time. He thinks, “I would have never worked or performed these tasks had I known that what I set out to receive would not end up materializing.” When it comes to the service of God we must remain far from this mindset. Is there reward for our mitzvos, good deeds and positive acts? Unequivocally, yes. This is clear from the opening verses of our Parsha. There is reward in this world and there is reward in the World to Come. There is no good deed that goes unnoticed or unrewarded. How that reward is delivered is a bit more complex. God has a system and it often defies our comprehension. Sometimes God takes reward generated by our actions and allocates it to our children, as they may need it more than us. Sometimes, we are the beneficiaries of certain blessings generated by the actions of those who came before us. There is beautiful reward for all we do. The allocation and distribution is understood only by God. We must understand that when it comes to the service of God, even if we don’t get what we wanted or had hoped for, our efforts are never in vein. Every mitzvah, every act of kindness has the benefit of creating a relationship with God. In fact, the Torah states: “And I will place My dwelling in your midst, and My Spirit will not reject you; I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people.” (Vayikra 26:11-12) After all the discussion of material blessing, the Torah explains that the most important result we can realize from our service of God is a relationship with God. Even if the wheat, barley, and grapes don’t blossom as we had hoped. Even if the cattle, the sheep and livestock aren’t as plentiful as we had imagined, our service, our actions, our mitzvos are never in vein. As a result of all we have done, “I will walk in your midst and I will enjoy a relationship with you.”
We live in a result driven society. If we can’t quantify the results, it must mean we failed. While this may be true in certain areas of life, it is not true when it comes to spirituality. There are times when we pray, learn, perform acts of kindness and give tzedaka because we need and want something from God. There are many times when we see the beautiful results of our actions and there are many times when we simply don’t get what we want. Whether we actively see the beracha (blessing) or not, one thing is clear. Every spiritual act is purposeful and meaningful. Every spiritual act creates closeness and holiness. Every time we serve God, we have the opportunity bring Him close to us and have the privilege to be just a bit closer to Him.
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