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Heshy Berenholz created the topic: Musings on Parshat Bechukosi
Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Seven positive mitzvahs and five prohibitions
Rewards for observing mitzvahs
• Fruitfulness of the land
• Peace in the land
• Victory over enemies
• Prosperity and population growth
• Divine Presence will be felt in the land of Israel
Punishments for disobedience (Tochacha)
• Sickness and defeat
• Famine and wild beasts
• Horrors of siege
• National destruction and Exile
• Repentance will bring restoration
Valuations of dedications to the Temple
Consecration of animals to the Temple
Consecration of real estate to the Temple
Redemption of Second Tithe
“Eem B’chukosi Taylachu…”
This opening verse of the parsha means “if [or when] you walk in [pursue] my statutes…” then you will be rewarded with blessings for your obedience. Building on the similarly sounding Hebrew word “chakuk” which means engraving on stone (in contrast to writing with ink on paper or parchment), the Lubavitcher Rebbe perceives a deeper meaning here: blessings are earned by those who constantly and consistently “walk” (i.e., lead their lives) experiencing the words and ideas of the Torah day-in day-out as if they were engraved on their hearts and minds--much like permanent and deep stone engravings. The root is also related to chok, those divine laws that appear to lack any rational explanation. Rewards are bestowed on those who observe even these difficult-to-understand mitzvahs.
Recurrence of a root-word highlights the major theme of the text, according to Martin Buber. The Hebrew word “keri”, which is repeated seven times, can mean “haphazard” or “natural accident” or “indifference”. It is the belief that what happens to a person is simply a matter of chance (Rambam). It is this indifference, this trivialization of the relationship between the nation of Israel and God (“If you walk with me with keri”) that brings on national calamity. God responds by walking with us with keri.
Variations of the Hebrew root-word for desolation (shemama) occur some six times underscoring the bleak and devastating conditions that will result.
Several times the Torah repeats that we will experience “the punishment for your sins sevenfold”. The number seven links to the days of creation; to the years of Shmeita and to the seven cycles of Shmeita leading to Yovayl.
Why Are the Blessings of a Material, Not Spiritual, Nature?
If the ultimate goal is to achieve rewards in the world to come wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the Torah to focus on the eternal spirituality and not the worldly, temporary materialism? Both Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi B.S. Jacobson cite a number of approaches to dealing with this issue:
Achad Ha'am argues that the concepts of the world to come and resurrection of the dead developed only after the nation lost its independence and fell into a deep malaise. The pressing national depression precipitated a replacement of national destiny with concepts promising individual salvation.
Ibn Ezra thinks that the blessings were stated in general terms but the curses in very specific language in order to frighten and deter the listeners. Blessings would be immediate but the curses would occur gradually. First there would be minor sufferings, to deter further sinning. But if the evildoing persists, then the most serious curses would be inflicted. Furthermore, the Torah purposely concealed the ultimate spiritual rewards to prevent misunderstandings. Because the world-to-come (Olam Habah) concept is too difficult to explain in a group setting, rewards are presented in a commonly understood language that the masses could relate to.
Rambam believes that this Olam Habah concept is unfathomable. Material rewards are not meant to be the ultimate rewards. Rather, their existence provides an environment conducive to good conduct, thereby facilitating our ability to achieve the ultimate, true spiritual experience. Our conduct in this world determines our fate in the world to come. Ideally, one strives to perform mitzvahs for their intrinsic value and not for any ulterior motive.
Ramban points out that the listed blessings of Nature benefit the entire group. God weighs the behavior of the majority of the people in determining reward or punishment. Individuals, on the other hand, are judged individually by their own behavior. We prosper or perish based on our own actions. The Midrash observes that the first paragraph of Shema-- which is addressed in the singular to the individual -- makes no mention of rewards.
Joseph Albo thinks that promises to the nation as a whole cannot be spiritual so must necessarily be material. He cites a number of instances in the Torah where spiritual recompense is alluded to when addressing the individual.
Isaac Arama notes that, in fact, the Torah does repeatedly stress the spiritual rewards for good behavior: “…And I will set My abode among you… And I will set My abode among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people”. Once we are freed of the mundane worldly, material challenges, this spirituality can be experienced and can thrive.
Sara Lee Boshnack speculates that the then-existing slave mentality necessitated promises of things that were tangible and immediate.
On the Tochahcha (Admonitions/Warnings)
Based on the wording and frequent referral to the land (“Sabbatical rest”; “land will enjoy its Sabbaths”), it appears that these punishments were triggered by the nation’s failure to observe the Shmeita and Yovayl years. Both topics were discussed in immediately preceding sections. Now, as the depopulated land lies barren, the violated Sabbaths will be made up (“then shall the land expiate its Sabbath years”).
Rabbi David Fohrman offers an intriguing hypothesis that links to the Garden of Eden story. In both instances there are the Divine blessings of prosperity; of conquest and dominion; of peace; and of lushness and fecundity. Rashi’s comment on the verse “I will stroll among you and I will be your God” is “I will walk with you in the Garden of Eden and will be like one of you”. The promise to maintain a relationship with God is contingent on accepting God’s dominion over all the goodness He has granted us. In the Garden of Eden it was manifest in the commandment to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here it is to observe the land’s Sabbath(s).In Rabbi Fohrman’s view, the divine restrictions in place (in the Garden of Eden) and time (Sabbaths) make the point that all the goodness that accrues to us derives from God and, as such, we are obligated to acknowledge and to follow His dictates.
By not accepting God’s edict to them, Adam and Eve communicated their belief that they could act any way they pleased because they felt that it was they (and not God) who were “masters of the universe”. The consequence of their behavior was a breakdown in their relationship with God; they were forced to hide from God’s anticipated anger. By now again offering the nation peace and prosperity, the Torah is giving us a second chance to cling to and walk as one with God -- by acknowledging that these gifts are from Him. By violating the Shmeita and the Yovayl laws, we demonstrate (like Adam and Eve) that we think that we are in control, not God. The inevitable consequence of such belief and behavior is a loss of the close relationship we once had with God i.e., the curses and horrors of the Tochahcha.
There is an elegant symmetry between some of the words of blessing and punishment:
“If you …are careful to keep my commandments” vs. “If you…do not keep all these commandments”
“ …the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit…You will have your fill of food” vs. “Your land will not yield its crops and the trees of the land will not produce fruit…You will be forced to eat the flesh of your sons, and make a meal of the flesh of your daughters”
“You will chase away your enemies” vs.“ ...Your enemies will dominate you. You will flee even when no one is chasing you…you will be defeated by your enemies”.
“I will turn (My face) to you” vs. “I will set My face against you”
There is a second Tochacha recorded in parshat Ki Savo; it represents punishment for our failure to observe Torah b’simcha u'vetuv layv--with joy and goodness of heart. That one contains 98 curses (double the size of the one in this week’s parsha) and is filled with frightening words, haunting images and an awesome array of curses far exceeding and overwhelming the preceding blessings:
Ramban’s view is that the two Tochachas refer to the destruction of the first and then the second Holy Temple.
Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’ s opinion is that the first Tochacha relates to God’s past Covenant with us, while the one in Ki Savo relates to the future. The consolation is that at the conclusion of all the punishment and all the suffering, the Jewish people will repent and return to God.
Rav Yissocher Frand elaborates: “The Destruction of the First Bais HaMikdash and the Babylonian exile which followed it had a prophesized finite end to it. The prophets foretold that the people would be in exile for 70 years and following this 70 year period, the Jews were given permission to return to the Land of Israel (where they eventually rebuilt the Bais HaMikdash). Therefore, it makes sense that the Tochacha which foretells the Babylonian Exile features the consolation in close proximity to the end of the chastisement.
We do not know of a specified date for the redemption from the Destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash. We have now been in this exile for close to 2000 years! However, there will be an end to this exile. When will that occur? We do not know, but it will come. This is precisely why the consolation does not immediately follow the Tochacha here [in Ki Savo]. We need to wait. We need to wait until we return to our God. Eventually, we will get out of it because in the end Israel will repent and immediately thereafter they will be redeemed …but we do not know when that is going to happen.”
The Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) suggests that the Tochacha here is in the plural because it was meant for a time when the entire nation would sin. But in Ki Savo the Tochacha is expressed in the singular because it is addressed to individuals who act inappropriately even if the nation as a whole is not sinning.
In Ki Savo, as the Israelites are about to enter the holy land as ish echad blayv echad, with a strong sense of national unity and identity, they are spoken to as one organic whole, in the singular. Here at Mt. Sinai the Israelites are spoken to in the plural because they were a rag-tag group of individuals that has not yet coalesced into a unified nation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes three significant differences between the admonitions here and the scolding presented in Sefer Devarim. Here the wording is in the plural; in the Book of Deuteronomy it is in the singular. Here the words are God’s; in Devarim it is Moshe speaking. The curses in Devarim conclude with the vision of a future filled with bleakness and pessimism. Here God assures the nation that even in their worst hours they will never be destroyed. He still loves us and promises reconciliation if only we change our behavior. His Covenant with us remains in force. The people of the nation of Israel will continue to have a shared fate, destiny and responsibility for one another. And it is this responsibility, argues Rabbi Sacks, which demands that each of us become leaders, to originate acts of kindness that can sometimes make a major difference in the world. Out of the promised suffering and retribution will rise, like the mythical Phoenix, a people with a re-enforced sense of helping one another and aiding humanity. Rabbi Sacks concludes “… that even the smallest Jewish community can turn to the Jewish people worldwide for help to achieve things that would be exceptional for a nation many times its size. When the Jewish people join hands in collective responsibility they become a formidable force for good.”
“Hope Despite Holocaust”
Nechama Leibowitz’s analysis of the text concludes that there is the promise of an optimistic outcome embedded in the horror of the Tochacha.
Israel will lose its state; witness the destruction of the Temple; and experience a dispersion of its people. Its land will become so barren and desolate that “…enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished at it.” These enemies, astounded by the lack of everything and by the prevalence of disease and plague, will recognize that this desolation was caused by Israel’s sinning. Rashi’s interpretation is that this astonishment is good. It means that no foreign power will want the land and try to conquer it. As history has shown, many nations tried to settle in the land, but none ever succeeded. The Divine promise among the ruins has kept the land for the Jewish nation.
“And you will I scatter among the nations” means that the people will be, in Rashi’s words, “scattered like chaff, with the winnowing fan, with no one particle coming into contact with another.” But the Talmud perceives a blessing in that our enemies will be unable to engineer a total destruction of our people scattered around the world.
“And I [God] shall bring them into the land of their enemies” appears to be another punishment. But the Maharal points out that the Hebrew word for “bringing” has a positive connotation and implies concern and care. God will not just send us away, but He will bring us Himself and be with us through exile and wanderings.
One of the closing verses of the Tochahcha says it all: “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God.”
The Book of Vayikrah Symphony…
…as “conducted” by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.
The opening overture presents themes regarding the individual yearning for closeness to God by bringing offerings (korbanot).The ensuing movements deal with a host of communal themes…
• The rules and procedures for bringing Offerings and for dealing with states of Tumah
• Centrality of Community
• Our Covenant with God
• Laws that enable us to become Kadosh in our daily lives--separate but not isolated as we engage the world
• Blessings for, and dire consequences of not, observing the Torah law.
The closing Coda of Valuation (ayrchin) brings us back to the individual and his worth. The majority of the Sefer deals with communal issues. But at the beginning and at the end is the melody of individuality in expression and in creativity.
Why Does Sefer Vayikrah End With Laws of Valuation (ayrchin)?
Dr. Alvin Greengart thinks that the depression and feelings of worthlessness that result from reading the Tochacha can be mitigated when we are reminded of our individual uniqueness and worth. Others have suggested that this is a reminder that while this Sefer is filled with communal commandments and ceremony, the Torah demands that we never lose sight of our uniquely individual value.
Some think that the unpleasant Temple housekeeping financial needs are purposely kept for last. But perhaps the opposite is true. Compared to the wrenching, frightening imagery of the Tochacha, donating money for communal needs hardly seems painful at all.