Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Bechukosai(Leviticus 26:3-27:34) Get Ready, Stay Steady: Advice from a Navy Seal and a Chassidic Rebbi

Two core themes of this week’s Parsha are the Jewish nation’s reward for remaining committed to their mission and also the curses that will befall them if they don’t. Every few centuries Jewish history repeats itself. It goes something like this: We are given freedom in a country or region and we prosper. We set up synagogues, schools, and other Jewish infrastructure but then the prosperity becomes so affixed in our lives that we forget our Jewish identity and either willingly or unwillingly seek to blend so deeply into the culture of our host country that we fail to strengthen our Jewish identity in a meaningful way-that’s when the persecution begins. However, no matter how bad things get, we are assured that the Almighty will not forget us. It’s impossible to explain through natural means what some call the miracle of the Jews, a people without a land for close to 2,000 years, without a national language (spoken Hebrew is a relatively new phenomenon), or even common history. The Jews of Yemen share no history with the Jews of Poland and so too the Jews of Austria with the Jews of Tunisia and others. Land, language, and common history are the three traits necessary for the sustenance of a nation but the Jews had none of the above, and were persecuted in every land they inhabited. There’s no natural way to explain this historical anomaly other than it being G-d’s promise that we are still here. The verse below is part of the promise but its structure is odd.And I will remember My covenant [with] Jacob, and also My covenant [with] Isaac, and also My covenant [with] Abraham I will remember. (Leviticus 26:42).Normally, the Patriarchs are refereed to as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but here the order is reverse; why? The Midrash asks this question and in the process of answering it, veers off to a different topic, one imparting an insight into how to induce spirituality. There is an ancient dispute between two schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai; did G-d first create the earth and only afterwards create the heavens or did He create the heavens first and only then create the earth? Both sides bring scriptural proofs to their side of the argument as well as logic but there is no resolution. It seems futile for the Midrash to be discussing this point because what practical ramification does it make to know how or in what order the world was created? In Chassidic thought dispute is understood metaphorically.Two brothers were famous figures in the nascent Chassidic movement of the late 18th century, one was Rebbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, the other Rebbi Zushe. Each had his own approach for how to guide spiritual seekers. Is it better to begin with thinking about lofty spiritual concepts relating to G-d and meditate on them or would it be better to begin thinking about how flawed we finite human beings are and how much wisdom we lack? Their discussion is relevant to many of life’s endeavors. For example, newlyweds who want to know what they need to do to make sure their love and commitment will remain strong. One approach might be having them keep a notebook of the gratitude to appreciate what each does for the other. Shopping, taking the garbage out, cooking, doing the dishes, paying the bills, intimacy, companionship and other assets are something never to be taken for granted. By constantly realizing how appreciative you are to your spouse, you will want to pull your weight in the relationship and make sure to be supportive and available when needed. According to this way of thinking, inspiration to be a good spouse will emanate from the recognition of the gift of the marriage and the spouse who brings much happiness to your life.But there’s another approach. First think about how you are not the easiest person to get along with. How many times have you left clothes and other belongings all over the house? How many times have you lost the car keys, forgotten to go shopping or some other activity you had committed to? First work on yourself by thinking about your own imperfections and only then you should start to think about how grateful you are to your spouse. Both are valid approaches; the core difference is only which one should we focus on first.The two brothers, Rebbi Elimelech and Rebbi Zushe, went to see their mentor, the Maggid of Mezeritch. He acknowledged the validity of both views but concluded that it was preferable to first work on yourself, acknowledging your character flaws and that they as well as your ego are the driving motivation of your anger, fears, and other character defects. One who prays to G-d as a humble person is the one who has a chance of being successful in a meaningful relationship with Him. The other approach, the one that begins with focusing on loftier concepts, has a potential shortcoming. One can concentrate on the Almighty’s grandeur and meditate on the glorious world He has created, but if you do so with arrogance, are condescending of others, and feel that you are deserving and owed all the good mental and physical health you have, as well as the other gifts you possess, what kind of spiritually meaningful relationship can you have?The Maggid concluded his advice with a common expression (at that time): “if one begins on the ground, you can’t (have a big) fall.” Some people with very little or many times no background in Judaism, learn works of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in search of spirituality. Others pray for extended periods of time or meditate, but are not willing to confront their own character defects and, even worse, seem to find many in others. It’s easier to think about loftier concepts than it is to look at your own flaws.One of the most practical graduation speeches I have ever heard was given in 2014 at the University of Texas by Admiral William McRaven, in which he shared ten life lessons he learned from his Navy Seal basic training, one of which was making your bed every day.If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made – that you made – and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.There are no shortcuts to emotional or spiritual health, i.e. peace of mind. The best way to get there is to start on the ground with little things, only then can you hope to be able to reach the beautiful view from the summit. (Vayikra Raba 36:1; Nesivos Shalom pp. 137-138)