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Moving From a Casual to an Intimate Relationship With Hashem

A significant portion of Parshat Bechukosai consists of the “tochacha” – Hashem’s warning of the trials and tribulations that will be visited upon the Jewish nation if they abandon Hashem and the Torah. In multiple verses, the Jewish nation’s betrayal is described as having “walked” with Hashem “b’keri.”

What is the nature of the transgression signified by “b’keri?” In Hilchot Ta’anit (1:3), Rambam states that “b’keri” refers to “mikreh,” or chance. That is, when suffering befalls the Jewish people they should realize that such suffering is not by chance, but rather a signal to repent (i.e., to do “teshuvah”). However, if they regard the suffering as mere chance and coincidence that has no connection with their behavior, then the sufferings will continue. In short, the sin of “b’keri” is denying that Hashem plays a guiding role in our lives, and that obstacles and failures are His veiled way of encouraging us to repent (see ArtScroll explanation of “Al chet s’chatanu b’kasyut oref”).

In a footnote in The Living Torah, Rav Aryeh Kaplan references additional interpretations of the phrase “b’keri, and ultimately settles on “indifference” in the English translation.

R’ Kaplan’s choice raises the question as to why “indifference” should trigger such harsh punishments. Synonyms for “indifference” include, “apathetic,” “unresponsive”, and “casual.” While hardly praiseworthy, these attitudes – which might find expression in such passive violations as failing to pray or forgetting to make berachos - still seem less problematic than aggressive, passionate sins such as murder and robbery.

Let’s see if we can develop a better understanding of why indifference triggers such severe consequences. In doing so, we may also find a connection with Rambam’s translation as “mikreh,” or chance.

The third mishnah in the first perek of Pirkei Avos states:

Al tiheyu k'avadim ha'meshamshim es harav al menas l'kabel pras; elah heyu kavadim ha'meshahshim es harav shelo al menas l'kabel, v'ihi morah shamayim aleichem

“Be not like servants who serve the master on condition of receiving reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving reward, and fear of Heaven will be upon you.”

One can question why being motivated by reward (and deterred by punishment) detracts from one's yiras Hashem. If I am motivated to do the right thing (and avoid the wrong things), by a desire to obtain reward (and avoid punishment), what is wrong with that? Isn't fear of punishment the very definition of yiras Hashem?

Yet, in the fourth chapter of Mesilas Yesharim, we see that reward and punishment is considered the lowest form of motivation for choosing good and avoiding evil (which R' Luzzato refers to as "vigilance" or zehirus). The highest motivation for exercising vigilance in one's actions is the realization that perfection of character is an ideal in and of itself, irrespective of reward.

Insights provided by Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky of Jersualem in a Tisha B'Av shiur can help shed some light on these issues. Briefly, R' Orlofsky described 3 types of relationships with Hashem by analogy to relationships with other people with which we are all familiar in our daily lives. Since we understand the dynamics of these human relationships so well, the analogy can help us model a relationship with Hashem of the kind described in the mishnah. That is, because we understand which relationships in life give us the most satisfaction and pleasure, we can begin to understand why a relationship with Hashem that is not based on reward will be the most spiritually uplifting.

R’ Orlofsky cites a gemara in Pesachim 88a:

R. Elazer asked: What does the verse mean when it says (Yeshayah 2:3), "Many nations will go and say, 'Let us go up to the mountain of Hashem, to the house of the God of Yakov'"? Is He the God of Yakov and not the God of Avraham and Yitzchak?

The Gemara answers: At the time of the redemption [the Holy Temple] will not be as it was in the days of Avraham when it was called a "Har" [= mountain], as it says (Bereishit 22:14), "On the mountain Hashem will be seen". Nor will it be as it was in the days of Yitzchak when it was referred to as a "Sadeh" [= field], as it says (Bereishit 24:63), "And Yitzchak went out to pray in the field". Rather it shall be as it was in the days of Yakov, who called it a "Bayit" [= house], as it says (Bereishit 28:19), "And he called the name of the place, 'The house of Hashem'".

R’ Orlofsky explains that the reference to the Beit Hamikdash as a “har” or mountain represents relating to Hashem from a distance. A person is in awe of Hashem much as he would be in awe of a tall mountain or other natural scenic view. However, this awe does not translate into a perceived closeness or connection to Hashem in one's day-to-day life. Analogously, for example, after visiting awesome natural attractions as part of a vacation, the feelings of awe wear off after I return to my day-to-day life. Or in the context of relationships, the analogy is to the “relationship” we have to dignitaries such as the President of the United States, or celebrities – we may see them on TV or hear them on the radio, and thereby observe and evaluate them from a distance. But there is no interaction, or relationship whatsoever.

The “sadeh” of Yitzchak represents a closer relationship with Hashem. There is day-to-day interaction, or "conversation." But it's akin to a business relationship. In business, relationships always operate on a quid pro quo basis. For example, I offer something to a buyer in exchange for money. The relationship between me and the buyer is based on an exchange of value. But if I don’t have something to offer you, or you don’t have something to offer me, then we don’t do business. Such a relationship does not lead to any kind of intimacy or closeness. At the end of the day, once business is concluded, both sides go home and there's no further interaction until business opens the next day. No exchange, no relationship.

This kind of relationship seems to be analogous to the first one described in the mishnah, i.e., worshipping Hashem based on an expectation of reward. It's as if you tell Hashem that I'll do good, and avoid bad, and in exchange, you'll give me a reward, and/or withhold punishment. For example, I'll daven with kavanah today, and in exchange, I expect you'll help me close that big business deal I'll be negotiating after lunch.

Someone could conceivably reach high levels of piety this way - they are so eager for reward, and so concerned about punishment, that they really only do good, and avoid all evil. But, of course, that's unlikely. As we all know, life is not so simple, and the reward for good deeds is not always immediate, or obvious, while certain challenges and difficulties seem unjust based on the perceived "goodness" of our behavior. So far from promoting intimacy, a quid pro quo relationship with Hashem runs the risk of fraying when the nature of the exchange (from our limited human perspective, of course) begins to appear imbalanced. We may begin to question Hashem (chas v'shalom) much as we might question a business partner who seems to be dealing with us unfairly, and always getting the better part of each deal.

Which brings us to the third level of relating to Hashem described by R' Orlofsky, which is represented by the “bayit” of Ya'akov - a level that is analogous to the “home,” or marriage. In an ideal marriage, one gives without expectation of reward simply because of the love and affection one feels for one's spouse. As described in a helpful book on relationships by Yaakov and Sue Deyo (Speed Dating), the ideal relationship is one in which each partner feels honored to give to the other because each partner feels such respect and admiration for the other. There is no expectation of reward in exchange for this giving; to the contrary, the hope is that one's giving will help the partner achieve his or her highest potential in life, and the realization of that potential will be the reward for the giver. (See Torah Temimah on Bereshit 28:19, where based on the gemara in Pesachim (88a) and a related excerpt from the Zohar, Rav Epstein explains that the phrase “bayit” signals a relationship between Hashem and the Jewish nation akin to a relationship between husband and wife).

In contrast, as many therapists will relate, the moment one spouse starts to feel they are giving more than they are getting (i.e., much like a business relationship, there is an imbalance in the exchange of value), there is trouble ahead. In other words, the moment marriage starts to become a business arrangement - e.g., I'll take out the garbage if and when you do the laundry - intimacy starts to dissipate, and resentment creeps in.

And so it is, the mishnah teaches, with our relationship with Hashem. If we seek a relationship with Hashem that is not based on any reward, but based on the realization that doing good, and avoiding evil, has value in and of itself independent of reward and punishment, then we are on the path towards achieving true yiras Hashem. In particular, even when severe challenges confront us, we will not question Hashem, and will continue to adhere to the Torah, because our conduct was never based on any expectation of reward, but rather was based entirely on a desire to act in accordance with Hashem’s Will.

As Rav Dessler explains in Strive for Truth (Part 3, page 187): "An act is done lishmah when it is done as a matter of course, when the good deed is not seen by the doer as deserving special credit; just as one does not feel proud at being able to see or hear - on the contrary, inability to see or hear is perceived as a defect." That is, when we do good without expectation of reward it means that following Hashem's word has been internalized to such an extent that doing otherwise would be considered as defective as not seeing or hearing.

To help further clarify the concept, one can consider the actions of a man like Oscar Schindler who saved over one thousand Jews during the Holocaust. Do you think he expected a reward? Was he afraid of being punished if he didn't do what he did? On the contrary, he suffered the loss of his entire fortune (and risked his life) pursuing the ultimate good (saving lives). Clearly, he was motivated by the realization that saving lives had a moral value in and of itself. This is truly exalted behavior (interestingly, when we hear the testimonies of other righteous individuals who saved Jews during the Holocaust, they almost always reject the notion that what they did was heroism, and instead explain they had no choice - it was just the right thing to do and they cannot imagine having acted otherwise).

If we can begin to incorporate this kind of attitude into our everyday actions - feel joy and satisfaction at doing good because that pleases Hashem (independent of whether Hashem will reward this behavior or not in the way that we want) - and revulsion at doing something wrong because we know that displeases Hashem - much as we might avoid actions that displease a spouse, and pursue actions that make one's spouse happy - then we can begin to achieve the highest level of closeness to Hashem identified by the mishnah. We will glorify Hashem in this world with our good deeds, and in exchange, Hashem will provide us with the tools to help us reach our spiritual potential (much as committed spouses help each other realize their respective potentials).

We see that by examining the relationships in our own lives that provide the greatest satisfaction, and understanding why this is the case, we can begin to improve our own manner of relating to Hashem so we derive more satisfaction from that relationship as well.

With the above thoughts in mind, we can better comprehend the nature of the transgression “b’keri.” When I act indifferently to Hashem, it means I am treating my relationship with Hashem as a business arrangement. In business relationships, if there’s no expectation of an exchange, then we don’t do business. The relationship may revive when there’s an opportunity for an exchange, and our financial interests coincide, but otherwise the relationship is inactive. In contrast, in more intimate relationships, such as marriage, indifference is deadly. Spouses that become indifferent to each other’s needs are often on the fast track to a divorce, R”L.

We can now see that indifferenceacting “b’keri” - triggers severe consequences not because Hashem is arbitrarily punishing us. Rather, the indifference brings suffering because, through our attitudes and actions, we have chosen a form of relationship with Hashem in which concern for the other’s welfare does not exist absent an opportunity for exchange. Just as one would never ask a business partner to have mercy (and even if one did, it’s unlikely the business partner would respond favorably without first exacting a steep price), so too it is contrary to the form of relationship we have established with Hashem to expect mercy when confronted with challenges.

But a good spouse will always exhibit compassion and mercy when we are in trouble. As such, if we seek an intimate relationship with Hashem in which we adhered to his Will without consideration of reward, then we are entitled to ask for mercy when confronted with chlallenges because that expectation is consistent with the nature of the relationship we sought.

How this understanding of “b’keri” ties into Rambam’s translation of “b’keri” as “by chance” can be seen in the commentary of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on this subject. R’ Hirsch also explains “b’keri” as chance, but with an interesting twist. Hashem’s wish is that we should act in accordance with His Will with intent and determination (b’kavanah). In contrast, if our behavior only accords with Hashem’s will “by chance” – i.e., because Hashem’s will happens to coincide with our own personal interests – and we decline to obey the Torah when it interferes with our personal interests - then we are acting “b’keri.”:

"Your way of life being in agreement with My Will is only something fortuitous . . . it is not your direct intention, your deliberate purpose . . . to obey Me, only to do that which is in accordance with My Will. You are no longer in principle an opponent to My Will, but you are indifferent to it. Quite other considerations decide your line of conduct, and you leave it to chance whether it is in contradiction to Me or falls in with My Will . . . [I]t is not your decision to take My Will into consideration in the very first place, and before each step that you take, to ask Me whether what you propose to do is also in accordance with My Will."

What is the consequence of acting “b’keri” according to this understanding of the term? It has long been observed that the continued existence of the nation of Israel is a miracle. A nation so persecuted, so beaten down, so oppressed throughout history should not logically survive with its traditions firmly intact when so many other great civilizations that enjoyed far greater material advantages (e.g., Greece, Rome) no longer exist. In short, the continued existence of the Jewish people as a thriving cultural force is contrary to the laws of nature and logic. As Rav Hirsch observes:

"The flourishing of [the Jewish nation] . . . [is] independent  of the ordinary laws of cause and effect which rule the physical and political world around it  . . . All external conditions were – and still are – against its birth and continued existence, and it lacks all the material foundations on which everywhere else nations depend.”

And it is not just R’ Hirsch and other Jewish scholars who think so; the continued existence of the Jewish people astonishes leading non-Jews as well. Mark Twain famously observed:

"If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race.  It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.  He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.

His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.  He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it.  The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmaties, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.  What is the secret of his immortality?"

The full significance of acting “b’keri” becomes clear. When our relationship with Hashem is an intimate one, and by intent our conduct accords with Hashem’s Will, then we enjoy a special providence that is above the laws of nature, and miraculously continue to thrive in a hostile world.

But when we act indifferently to Hashem – and our behavior accords with His Will only by chance when it happens to coincide with our interests – then the existence of the Jewish nation becomes subject to the laws of nature. And the laws of nature dictate that such a miniscule nation, with no material or physical advantages, and so often hated by the rest of the world, should vanish at some point, chas v’shalom. Rav Hirsch expresses it beautifully:

"If Israel trifles away the mission for which God made it into a nation, then God only has to turn away His Face, His special particular providence and guidance, and by itself [the Jewish nation] falls to ruin in the midst of all the enemy elements which throughout the history of the world have worked against it. Not its downfall, [but] its continued existence is the historical miracle of God. Its downfall would be merely the results of the given causes in the natural course of events."

In other words, we reach the same conclusion advanced earlier - the consequences of acting “b’keri” is simply cause and effect, not a punishment. Acting “b’keri” means subjecting ourselves to the laws of nature, and by all the laws of nature, we should no longer exist. But when we seek a relationship with Hashem that is not “b’keri” – not by chance and not marked by indifference – then Hashem reciprocates our efforts to achieve intimacy with a special providence that enables our continued existence contrary to the laws of nature.

To return to our earlier analogies, this cause and effect is very simple to understand based our own human relationships. One would never expect a business partner to exhibit any special concern for one’s welfare. Even if my business is failing, and at risk of filing for bankruptcy, a business partner will only do business with me – and possibly save my business - if we can work out an arrangement under which our financial interests coincide. So too if our relationship with Hashem is akin to a business arrangement, we should not expect any special deference. Our existence will be subject to the laws of the marketplace.

In sum, we have shown that acting with indifference to Hashem’s Will (“b’keri”) is synonymous with our conduct coinciding with Hashem’s Will only by chance (“mikreh”), and indeed, regarding our entire existence – both the successes and the challenges – as happenstance. Our relationship with Hashem becomes nothing more than a “business” relationship, and accordingly our existence – on both a personal and national level – become subject to the laws of nature and of the marketplace. The result is suffering because, given our precarious state in a hostile world, that is what the laws of history would dictate.

But when our conduct coincides with Hashem’s Will by intent – and without any expectation of reward – then our relationship with Hashem is akin to a marriage, and we can expect that Hashem will reciprocate our loyalty with mercy and compassion, and a special providence that defies the laws of nature


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