Friday, May 23, 2003
This week's parshah is bechukotai, the last parshah of Vayikra (Leviticus). The first half of the parshah concerns the rewards of following God's law and the punishments that will be levied by God if it is not followed. All three matters - obedience, reward and punishment - are construed collectively, as a matter for the people as a whole. The second half of the parshah concerns the dedication of various items to the Temple: voluntary gifts (as a fulfillmen of a vow), certain tithes, etc.
The section outlining the consequences of sin is actually divided in two. In the first section, (26:14-15) if Israel does not "keep all these commandments" but "denigrate My decrees, and grow weary of My laws" then Israel will have broken the covenant with God. Vvarious negative consequences follow: domination by enemies, failure of crops, and a general despair. And these punishments will be increased if Israel stubbornly persists in sin. Then, in 26:21, there is a different warning: if Israel goes with God qeri - that is to say, indifferently, or in a spirit of triviality - then additional disasters will befall. Wild beasts will ravage the population; enemies will invade and plagues will afflict the people; food and fuel will be scarce, to the point where the people are reduced to cannibalism; and, ultimately, Israel will be exiled. And then, while Israel is in exile, the text specifies (26:35), the Land will enjoy the sabbatical years that it did not receive when Israel was in the Land. Finally, in exile, the text specifies (26:39): "those of you who survive yimaqu (will decline, or perish) of ther sins in the lands of your enemies, and of the sins of their fathers with them yimaqu."
What is going on here? First, assuming I am right in splitting the tochecha (curses) into two sections, it seems to me significant that Israel's rebellion against God's commandments triggers consequences that take place within the Land while Israel's indifference to these commandments culminates in exile. Moreover, the purpose of exile is articulated as giving the Land its needed rest. If we rebel against God, and sin, we are still mindful of Him, and He can chastize us into returning to His commandments. But when we are no longer mindful of Him, we effective usurp His authority, setting ourselves and our own concerns above His. The expression of this usurpation in the text is, effectively, that we deny God's ownership of the Land, and refuse it its sabbaths, and therefore God exiles us from the Land, to make clear His ownership.
As noted, after the tochecha and the promise that Israel will return after repentance (26:42: "I will remember My covenant with Jacob, even my covenant with Isaac, even my covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land"), the text shifts gears, and discusses voluntary gifts to the Temple in fulfillment of vows. Why end the book of Leviticus on such a note? It appears anti-climactic.
Rabbi Avraham Fischer does a good job running through the various explanations of why the text might be ordered this way. For R. Hirsch, these (particularly the section on voluntary gifts) are not commandments, and hence failing to do them does not constitute disobedience, and should not trigger the curses, and doing them does not provide expiation for sin. That is why they are placed after. But R. Fischer adds a more interesting explanation: in each of these cases, holiness is conferred by human beings rather than by God. This distinguishes these cases from the cases that dominate Leviticus, where holiness stems from God and our job is to be properly mindful of that holiness, and therefore to remain holy ourselves.
But why put these laws after the tochecha? Perhaps because repentance is the greatest way that one can add holiness to the world. And perhaps because, after repentance, one is uniquely moved (and empowered) to voluntarily consecrate the world to God.