Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Parnassah Pendulum

Parshat Behar-BECHUKOTAI

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The opening comments of Midrash Rabba on Parshat Bechukotai address the Torah’s promise that those who follow the ways of God’s laws will be rewarded. King David was concerned for his own well being, despite his constant running to the house of study, and was promised goodness if he would simply follow God’s laws.

Quoting a verse in Mishlei (Proverbs 8:32) the Midrash notes that the idea that one’s children will listen to him refers to our forefather Yaakov who made a vow with the Almighty as to what his life (and family) would look like after spending time at Lavan’s house.

Some suggest Yaakov was really asking about his bottom line. He wanted assurances that he would be financially successful and independent. And yet the Midrash notes that of all the things Yaakov did ask of God, the promise of “parnassah” (financial stability) was not addressed by the Supreme Being.

Rav Asi in the Midrash suggests that God even gave a promise to Yaakov for Parnassah in the verse (Bereshit 28:15) “For I will not abandon you” which he defines to mean “I will not leave you without income.”

Based on a statement of Rabbi Hoshaya that “praised is the person who hears such a promise from his Creator,” Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa taught, “Praised am I and praised are you when all the conditions that were set are fulfilled.”

The Midrash concludes with an almost rhetorical question: “What conditions are we talking about? ‘If you follow my laws…’”

We live in a time in which the fealty to God spans a very large gamut in religious communities of all religions. On one extreme there are people who will dictate their way through the sword. Others are dogmatic extremists, preaching their belief system louder and louder, thinking such an approach will convince the uninitiated and uninformed. Others are more quiet about their views in public, but are similarly zealous within their own community, trying to get their co-religionists on the fringes of observance to repent and return from their sinful ways. Still others are more tolerant, happy to live and let live. Some use their religion as a source for their particular political views, while others refuse to mesh church and state, suggesting there are different hats we wear, and our religious hat should not mix with our mundane hat.

While I have no way to verify, I am sure that the approaches of people from different religions probably spanned similar gamuts throughout history, as it is simply a reflection of how diverse humans really are, viewing things through their particular lens, perhaps influenced by their own humanism which was able to overcome the strictures of certain religious practices.

And yet I can’t shake the idea that at the core of it all, despite the pervasive cynicism of our day, and the impertinence directed towards people who identify as religious, that people who seek to find meaning in life do indeed find value in rules and systems that guide our behavior, especially in the realm of ethics, when the ethics are clear, unencumbered by the contradictions and dilemmas life will sometimes raise.

And this is where the idea of “Im Bechukotai Teileichu” comes in. At the very least, most of the humans of the world would like to live in dignity, with food, clothing, shelter available, and the ability to make my life a little better, ideally through the sweat of my brow, but also with the knowledge that I have a home to return to, while I take personal responsibility for the direction in which my life is headed.

The Midrash is reminding us that those of us who are Jewishly God-fearing have a very simple formula: Follow the laws, don’t violate the negative commandments, do your part, make your effort (what some call a “hishtadlut”) and the parnassah will come.

It is most evident from the attendance at synagogue on Yom Kippur that we have not arrived. We all know that we fail, regularly, and with a degree of embarrassment before the Almighty that looks something like this: “God, I knew what I had to do! Your will! You laid it out so simply, and yet I continue to succumb to my inclinations that turn me away from my goals!”

This leads to the inevitable attempts at repentance and the commitments to improve. But let the practitioner beware! We all have our litmus tests of how and when we know and feel that God is most directly swinging the Parnassah pendulum in our direction.

May we merit to take better hold of our desires and controls, to fulfill the dictum of “Observe My laws,” so we may merit the gift of Parnassah, which is a gift directly apportioned by the Almighty to those who are most deserving.*
*It is not ours to determine who is deserving and who is not deserving, but certainly the Torah indicates and promises an incredible life to those who follow its ways. What that means in practical terms is in the hands of God to decide.

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