Bechukosai – Yerushalayim: Center of Torah Learning

This dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Todd Miller a”h upon the occasion of his yahretzeit this past week and a continued refuah shleima for my father, Moshe Chaim ben Raizel, may he get better soon.

This week we conclude the book of Vayikra. Towards the end of this Torah portion of Bechukosai we find the mitzvah of maaser biheima, tithing of domesticated animals. This is one of three mitzvos that one has to go to Yerushalayim and eat the food that had been separated. The other two are maaser sheini, second tithes of produce, and nata revai, fruit from the 4th year after a tree was planted. A tenth of one’s herd must be brought to Yerushalayim, the blood and chelev, non-kosher fats, were sacrificed on the alter in the Beis Hamikdash and the meat had to be eaten in Yerushalayim by those who brought it.
 The Sefer Hachinuch gives a reason behind this mitzvah (#356): “The root of the mitzvah is that Hashem chose the nation of Israel and desired for the sake of His righteousness that all of them are involved in learning Torah and knowing His Name. In His wisdom He set up this mitzvah so that they will learn to take mussar, for G-D knows that most people are pulled after their lowly physical state, since they are physical, and they don’t give their souls over to the pursuit of toiling in Torah and constant involvement in thereof, therefore He set up with His intellect and at least gave them a central location where everyone knows His words of Torah. Though there is no doubt that everyone sets up their home where they have to earn a living, therefore when every person brings up the tithes of their sheep and cattle every year to the place where people are involved in wisdom and Torah, which is Yerushalayim, the place where the Sanhedrin, high court, those that know knowledge and understand education, and so to tithes of grain are brought there 4 out of 7 years that lead up to shemita, the sabbatical year, as is known that maaser sheni is eaten there, as well as nata revai is also eaten there, therefore the owner of the money that was set aside to redeem and eat these mitzvos, will have a chance to learn Torah or he sends one of his children to learn there while eating from all the produce that must be redeemed. In this way, there will be in every Jewish house a wise person who knows Torah, who learned it with wisdom in every household. Then the whole land will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem. If there would only be one sage in each city or even ten, there would still be many people in each city, especially the women and children who would only visit them maybe once a year, or even if they go to their Torah classes once a week, by the time they get home it goes in one ear and out the other, but if there is a teacher in each and every household who lives there day in and day out evening, morning, and afternoon, who is always being cautious with what they are doing then everyone, men, women and children will be more observant. There won’t be any accidental or purposeful sin found amongst them. They will merit the fulfillment of the pasuk, ‘I will place My dwelling inside you… and you will be for Me a nation and I will be for you G-d.'” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 Hashem in His incredibly, deep wisdom set up a system to ensure the continuity of Torah learning on a deep level, with a way for each and every household to be involved and active in such an education and upbringing.  But why does it have to revolve around the element of food to ensure its success? Exactly what is the precise teaching and mussar haskel, lesson in character development, that Hashem was trying to teach us?

Today we see that Yerushalayim is the center of Torah education. Many of our children, post high school, attend yeshivas and seminaries for at least one year and hopefully come back changed with a better foundation in Torah observance and appreciation of the Torah, which will be the basis for the rest of their lives when raising a family. However, to ensure this would be a guaranteed life-changer as the Sefer Hachinuch describes, why couldn’t Hashem create a mandatory draft, a mitzvah for at least one person in every household to spend a few years in yeshiva, with mandatory follow-up conventions and refresher courses in Yerushalayim which would produce the same results as bringing the tithes of livestock and produce, as well as fruits from the fourth year of a tree’s growth, to be only eaten in Yerushalayim in order to have a reason to go there to learn? Why is a connection needed between eating these foods and learning in Yerushalayim in order for the continuity of Torah observance to be a success?

However, as the Sefer Hachinuch points out, in Hashem’s infinite wisdom He wanted to ensure that this plan is done correctly and He knows that people on some level, if possible, would look to find ways to dodge a draft. Therefore, as a moral lesson, knowing the ways the physical human being works, and what he is drawn to, Hashem connected one’s livelihood or means of physical survival with his ultimate success in walking in the ways of Hashem and ensuring that one’s family will also properly perform Hashem’s will. Therefore, Hashem created these 3 mitzvos of maaser sheni, maaser biheima, and nata revai, as means to ensure every Jewish family will send household members to Yerushalayim to learn Hashem’s Torah, the guidebook for life, so that they can then go home and lead their families properly in Hashem’s service. It is interesting to note that most yeshivas and seminaries now a days provide food for their students but it would seem back in the day that the parents would provide the food, i.e. the meat from maaser biheima, and the produce from maaser sheni and neta revai, when they sent their children to yeshiva in Yerushalayim as the Sefer Hachinuch points out here and the Moshav Zekeinim points out in parshas Re’eh (14:23) by the mitzvah of maser sheni.

The lesson here is that to ensure success it is a smart thing to recognize our weaknesses and frailties and figure out how to incorporate them into doing what is right in this way one’s plans will be fulfilled, like in this case by the plan of of ensuring every Jew to be a true servant of Hashem.