“If you will detest My statutes, and My laws you will find abhorrent so as not to do all of My commandments to break the covenant…” (Vayikra 26:15).
A Jew is either rising or falling; he never remains in one place. It all pivots on Torah learning. If he labors in Torah, he rises to the heights. If not, he begins to fall.
Rashi explains that one step leads to the next. If you stop learning, you will stop doing mitzvahs. Then you will be disgusted with those who keep mitzvahs. Next you will hate the sages. Then you will stop others from doing mitzvahs. Next you will deny the mitzvahs. Finally you will deny Hashem’s existence.
Rashi’s analysis is difficult to understand. Why does ignoring the mitzvahs lead one to be disgusted by those who keep them? If a person stopped doing mitzvahs because he’s lazy or indifferent, why would he start hating those who aren’t?
The answer to this question can be understood based on the following: Picture a hardened criminal, a man who spent years making his living lying, cheating, and stealing; clearly, he’s a man without a conscience. One day he is caught with incriminating evidence, but not quite enough to convict him. So they bring him into a room, hook him up to a lie-detector, and begin asking him a series of questions.
“What’s your name?” “How old are you?” “Where were you born?” “Where do you live?”
While he answers these baseline questions, a technician notes the movement of indicators that measure his pulse, blood pressure, breathing rate, and perspiration.
Then the questions change. “Have you ever committed a crime?”
“No.” All four indicators take a sharp upswing.
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“No.” The indicators shoot up further.
Then comes the critical question: “On the 15th of December, were you at the scene of the crime?”
“No.” The indicators all but jump off the chart.
Now, let’s understand what happened here. We have a mature individual, a man fully aware that the truth will be used against him. He knows that he is going to be asked certain questions. He might very well have practiced fabricated answers for days. Yet when the moment of truth arrives, his physical body betrays him. He can lie to the court. He can lie to the District Attorney. He can even to lie to himself. But there is a Voice Inside him that knows the truth.
Even as he is saying to himself, “Just deny it, keep calm and tell them the story,” that Voice Inside says, “But it’s not true. It didn’t happen that way.” He may try to ignore that voice, he may try to squelch it, but there is a struggle within him, a struggle so strong that a polygraph can measure it.
And that is because he, like all men, is made up of two parts. His neshama, given at birth, knows exactly what is appropriate and what is not, and yearns to do what is noble and proper. When he does what is right, he is in harmony with that voice with him, and enjoy serenity. When he does what is wrong, there is an internal conflict that doesn’t go away, leaving him no peace.
Now we can understand Rashi’s analysis. A Jew has a holy and lofty soul; when fed properly, it propels him to the heights. Torah is the greatest spiritual nourishment of the soul. When a Jew learns properly, his soul glows and leads him to the heights of human accomplishments. If he doesn’t learn, he gets lackadaisical and then jaded, mitzvahs stop having meaning to him, and it’s not long before he’s on a path downwards.
But it’s not a peaceful path. As he heads south, there is a voice inside him that says, “What are you doing?! It’s Shabbos. How can you get behind the wheel of that car? What’s wrong with you?” And, since the voice is him, he has to answer.
“I’ll tell you what I’m doing. I’m driving, okay? Leave me alone.”
“But,” the voice continues, “Hashem doesn’t need you to keep Shabbos. He gave you mitzvahs for your benefit. They help you. They shape you into what you’ll be forever. You’re hurting yourself.”
And again he has to answer. “Bug off. I told you already, those mitzvahs are stupid and archaic. They have no connection to me.”
This inner dialogues doesn’t happen once or twice. It’s ongoing and constant, and like any good argument, both sides only get more and more entrenched in their position. “Stop it, you’re destroying your life!”
“Shut up. I told you I don’t believe in this garbage! Just leave me alone.”
And before you know it, the person turns hostile and begins crusading against everything he once held to be holy – just as Rashi explained.