An enduring bond, engraved on stone
TorahParshat Bechukotai

An enduring bond, engraved on stone

Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34

One of my favorite Chasidic tales took place in Chicago.

In the 1940s, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, regularly dispatched emissaries to Jewish communities across America to share the joy and warmth of Judaism. One such mission was given to the venerable Chasid Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, who was sent to visit Chicago.

During Rabbi Shmuel’s visit, he was directed to meet with Mr. Charles Lissner, a prominent businessman and member of the local Jewish community. Mr. Lissner’s ancestor, Arke of Liozna, had been a devoted Chasid. However, having grown up in America, Mr. Lissner had become somewhat “Americanized,” prompting the Rebbe’s interest in a spiritual reawakening for him.

The atmosphere in the meeting was warm and personal, with Rabbi Levitin sharing stories of Mr. Lissner’s family’s rich Chasidic heritage. Mr. Lissner fondly recalled his upbringing where Chasidic customs and Shabbat celebrations were central.

As the meeting concluded, Mr. Lissner, assuming it was a fundraising visit, offered a contribution. However, Rabbi Shmuel respectfully declined. This puzzled Mr. Lissner. “Surely the venerable emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe did not come all the way from New York to pay me a social visit,” he exclaimed.

The rabbi explained that Jews are compared to the letters of the Torah scroll. When a letter in the Torah is faded or cracked, the Torah scroll is in need of a periodic examination rather than a complete rewrite. He likened their role to that of a Torah checker who restores faded letters, refreshing and uplifting Jewish souls, clearing away external influences to reveal their inherent holiness.

Mr. Lissner was very touched by these words.

Upon his return to New York, Rabbi Shmuel shared the encounter with the Rebbe, who responded with appreciation for the idea but offered an important clarification. While Torahs are written with ink, the Ten Commandments were engraved on stone.

The Rebbe explained the difference between writing and engraving. Writing with ink on parchment involves separate entities that can fade or be erased. In contrast, engraving on stone forms letters within the material itself, creating an enduring bond where the letters cannot fade or be erased, though they may become covered with dust.

The Rebbe likened a Jew to an engraved script, like the Ten Commandments, where the essence is inherent and enduring. He emphasized that a Jew’s true self is never lost but can be temporarily obscured by external influences. Helping a Jew rediscover their essence is like clearing away dust from an engraving, revealing their true vividness once more. The heart, he concluded, is always awake and responsive to this inner spark.

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, expounded on the meaning of the word “bechukotai” (“my statutes”), the name of this week’s Torah portion. He explained that “bechukotai” comes from the Hebrew root “chakikah,” which means engraving.

As the story illustrates, the message is that the mitzvot (commandments) are deeply ingrained within a person’s being, much like letters engraved in stone. The observance of mitzvot is an integral and unchangeable part of a person’s identity.

This knowledge helps us overcome the “dirt” that gets in the way of us fulfilling the Torah and mitzvot.

As we wipe off the external dirt and uncover our integral Jewish identity, may we merit all the blessings of this week’s portion, including “and you will live in security in your land (Israel), and I will grant peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to frighten [you] … and no army will pass through your land. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you.” PJC

Rabbi Yisroel Altein is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of Vaad Harabonim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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