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Parshas Behar - Bechokosai (5773)

The Torah and the Leafs

Q: What do a fine wine and the Toronto Maple Leafs have in common?
A: They both spend a lot of time in the cellar, cost too much and are only enjoyed on select occasions.

Q: Why is the Hockey Hall Of Fame in Toronto?
A: It's the only way Leafs fans can get to see the Stanley Cup!

Q: Why did the Post Office recall their latest stamps?
A: They had pictures of Maple Leafs players on them and people couldn't figure out which side to spit on.

Q. Who is playing against the Leafs tonight?
A. The winners.

As any true sports fan will tell you, it’s not about how hard your team tries, but whether they win or lose. In professional sports, nobody gets a medal for putting in a lot of effort. The downhill skier who comes in 4th place goes home from the Olympics with nothing, no matter how many months and years he practiced. That’s just the way things are – like it or not.

Well, not exactly. You see, maybe when it comes to the physical world that’s the way things are – but not when we are dealing with the spiritual reality. Allow me to explain:

The Talmud in Berachos 28b teaches the following:

Our Rabbis taught: Upon entering [a Beis Medrash – a House of Torah Study] what does a man say? 'May it be Your will, L-ord my G-d, that no mistake should arise through me, and that I should not err in a matter of Halachah [Jewish Law] and my colleagues will rejoice [over my embarrassment]. That I should not call unclean clean and clean unclean, and that my colleagues should not err in a matter of Halachah and I rejoice [in their embarrassment]'. Upon leaving [the Beis Midrash] what does he say? 'I thank You, L-ord my G-d, that You set my portion with those who sit in the Beis Midrash and You have not set my portion with those who sit in the street corners [shopkeepers], for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early to learn Torah and they rise early to do mundane things; I toil and they toil, but I toil and receive a reward whereas they toil and do not receive a reward…

At first glance, the end of this prayer is difficult to understand. Only someone who engages in Torah study receives payment and reward? What about a shoemaker or a tailor? Is he not paid for his work? What exactly does this prayer mean?

The Chofetz Chaim explains that the key phrase is “toil” i.e. intense effort. In most jobs one is paid for the results. For example, let's say you hire a shoemaker to make shoes for you. Your feet are a size seven and he makes shoes that are a perfect fit for a size ten. You will not pay him, because you are paying him for the results, that he produces a good shoe that fits you. So no matter how hard he tried and how much intense effort he put into making that size ten shoe, he will not be paid since he didn’t produce the result for which you hired him.

This is not so regarding Torah study and spiritual growth. When it comes to learning Torah, one is paid for the efforts and the toil, not the results. If someone struggles over a difficult section of Gemara (Talmud) for three hours and does not figure it out, he gets the same reward in Heaven as someone who actually does figure it out. When a Jew grapples with a particular mitzvah (commandment) or has a difficult test in accepting a particular teaching of the Torah, G-d rewards him for the effort that he put in, even if he didn’t pass the test in the end.

This will help us understand the very first verse in Parshas Bechukosai - the second of the two Torah portions that we read this Shabbos in the synagogue. In Leviticus (26:3), the Torah states: "If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time”.

The verse seems to be repetitious. What is the difference between "following My decrees" and "observing My commandments"?

Rashi, the great Bible commentator, explains, based on the Oral Tradition, that "following My decrees" - which is read in Hebrew bechukosai tay-laychu (lit. “walk” in the path of My decrees) - means that we should toil in Torah study. Whereas the next words in the verse refer to the performance of the actual commandments.

It is difficult to understand where the Oral Tradition got the idea of “toiling in Torah” from the Torah’s words bechukosai tay-laychu, which simply mean “to follow My decrees”.

We can answer, based on the teaching of the Chofetz Chaim mentioned earlier, that if the Torah writes that we should “walk” in the path of G-d’s decrees, it is indicating to us that the most important thing in G-d’s eyes is that we are walking on the right path i.e. we are exerting toil and effort in our spiritual journey to understand and integrate Torah into our lives - even if we don’t ever get to the end of that path.

In Torah, it is the effort that counts, not the results. Go, Torah, Go!

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