PARASHAT BECHUKOSAI

 

 

Who Comes to Whom?

 

 

In this study, we will focus on the first part of our parashat, which sets forth what will happen “if you follow My statutes” and what will happen “if you do not obey Me, and do not perform all of these commandments.” We will begin with a preliminary comparison between this unit and the blessings and curses listed in The book Devarim. We will note the fundamental discrepancy between them in relation to the fundamental question, “Who comes to whom?” In other words, is it man who approaches and enters the boundaries of the Divine command, fulfilling and obeying His word, or is it Elohim Who enters man’s boundaries, impacting his life and his will? We will examine the two processes that serve as the central axis of our parashat: growth and punishment.

 

The View from the book of Vayikra

 

If you follow My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time, and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. (Vayikra 26:3-5)

 

“If you follow My statutes and keep My commandments and do them” – these are the most elementary and primal statutes, pertaining to the foundation of existence; they are “My statutes,” which I have placed before you.  This introduction suits the orientation of The book Vayikra, in which it is clearly Yahweh who sets down statutes. The statutes are Mine, the commandments are Mine, and you will follow them and observe them. Which statutes and which commandments are referred to here? In the most basic sense, this description is part of a unit that began in Parashat Behar and was given at Sinai: “And Yahweh spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them: When you come to the land which I am giving to you, then the land shall observe a Shabbat unto Yahweh” (25:1-2). This unit concludes at the end of the the book with the words, “These are the commandments which Yahweh commanded Moshe for Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai” (27:34). The first part of this unit establishes commandments that include fundamental statements such as, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” and “for unto Me Bnei Yisrael are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your Elohim” – your brother cannot truly be your servant, for he is My servant, since I brought him out of Egypt. Later on, there are other fundamental principles: “You shall not fashion idols for yourselves, nor shall you erect for yourself a carved idol, nor a pillar, nor shall you install a figured stone in your land, to bow down upon it, for I am Yahweh your Elohim. You shall observe My shabbatot and revere My Sanctuary; I am Yahweh” (26:1-2) – a negation of any other divinity, for “I am Yahweh your Elohim,” and the obligations of observing Shabbat and of showing reverence for the Temple.

 

Each of these realms, then – the land, man, time, and the Sanctuary – belongs to Yahweh. More broadly, the Torah presents a view that focuses on the fact that Yahweh is Sovereign; the world is His, and man is required to “step out” of his place and to come to Yahweh, to be illuminated by that which is Divine and elevated. This view is actually the undercurrent to the entire the book, and in this sense we might extend the meaning of the terms “My statutes” and “My commandments” at the beginning of our parashat to include all the statutes and commandments included in The book Vayikra.   

 

Let us now return to our parashat. Yahweh describes what will happen “if you follow My statutes” and observe the commandments. It is not self-evident that the subject here is “following My statutes,” “observance,” and “performing the commandments,” nor even obeying Yahweh. The reason for this is that the subject is not man himself and what is happening in his inner world. The subject is the behavioral statutes and commandments upon which man’s existence is based. If you “enter the boundaries” of these rules and behave in accordance with their truth, then your existence will be firm and stable, like the natural phenomena that follow the law of Creation, and you will enjoy the resulting Divine abundance: “I will give you rain in due seas, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” Yahweh will shower His goodness, and the laws of Creation will follow their course; the earth will give of its increase, and the trees will produce their fruit. Another step in this process relates to man’s ability to absorb all this goodness: “And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time.” The produce will be so abundant that the threshing will continue until the time of the vintage, and the vintage will last until it is time to sow again. “And you shall eat your bread to the full” – bread is already the product of man’s efforts; his human efforts, too, are inspired by this Divine abundance. Finally, “and dwell in your land safely” – the cleaving to that which is good and whole will assure you a secure dwelling – both physically and economically – in your land.

 

Moving from Physical Abundance to Spiritual Abundance

 

The text goes on to describe a second area in which Yahweh promises goodness:

 

And I will give peace in the land and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. And five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. (vv. 6-8)

 

Following the promise of physical security, there follows the promise of existential safety and tranquility: “I will give peace in the land” – in the most basic sense, meaning, “You shall lie down and none shall make you afraid,” “I will remove evil beasts out of the land,” “neither shall the sword go through your land.” There will be quiet, with no fear, no evil beasts, and no sword to disturb your peace. The verses are not describing the value of peace in its dimensions of connection with the other, nor as something that enriches one’s inner life. The perspective is more basic: tranquility and security. A spiritual, higher existence on your part will give you protection. The next level is, “And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword” – not only will they not attack you, but your strength will grow in relation to theirs, when they fall before you by the sword.  Your strength will grow exponentially as you unite to chase your enemies: “And five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight.”

 

A third sphere is then addressed:

 

For I will turn Myself to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and establish My covenant with you. And you shall eat old store, and remove the old because of the new. (vv. 9-10)

 

Now Yahweh turns His attention, as it were, to Am Yisrael, and this turning itself brings blessing. “And make you fruitful” – in the physical sense, perhaps also spiritually; “and multiply you” – a physical multiplicity of the nation; “and establish My covenant with you” – Yahweh will fulfill His part of the covenant with His nation. “And you shall eat old store, and remove the old because of the new” – this is a special promise concerning the “old store,” which will last and remain fresh. A breath of eternity will touch your food as a result of Yahweh’s turning to you.

 

A fourth sphere of blessing is that Yahweh causes His Presence to dwell amongst the nation, in the midst of the land:

 

And I will set My Sanctuary among you and My soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your Yahweh, and you shall be My people. I am Yahweh your Elohim Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen, and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and caused you to walk upright. (vv. 11-13)

 

Once the reality of the environment is ripe – in the physical sense of tranquility and fertility – it is ready for exposure to the highest level of all: the tangible presence of Elohim dwelling in its midst. “And I will set My Sanctuary among you” – Elohim has an actual place in reality; He is part of the reality in the land. “And My soul shall not abhor you” – why should His soul abhor? What great message is this verse conveying? Seemingly, this description conveys a hint to the lowliness of life when severed from Divinity. That which is Divine is perceived as lofty, worthy, and whole, while whatever is separate from it belongs to the “shadows of life,” and Elohim therefore abhors it.

 

“And I will walk among you, and will be your Elohim, and you shall be My people” – Elohim’s Presence is palpable. The very midst of life contains His Presence, and everything is illuminated by this central reality. “I am Yahweh your Elohim, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen, and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and made you walk upright” – Elohim’s centrality is defined in terms of His having brought the nation out of Egypt, breaking the bars of their yoke, and giving dignity.

 

We will now examine the introduction to the unit of the blessings and curses in The book Devarim and consider the significant difference between the two texts.

 

The View from The book Devarim

 

And it shall be, if you obey diligently the voice of Yahweh your Elohim, to observe and to perform all His commandments which I command you this day, that Yahweh your Elohim will set you on high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of Yahweh your Elohim. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beasts, the increase of your cattle and the flocks of your sheep. Blessed shall be your basket and your store. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

 

Yahweh shall cause your enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before your face; they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. Yahweh shall command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you set your hand to, and He shall bless you in the land which Yahweh your Elohim gives you. Yahweh shall establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He has sworn to you, if you shall observe the commandments of Yahweh your Elohim and follow His ways. And all people of the earth shall see that you are called by the Name of Yahweh, and they shall be afraid of you. (Devarim 28:1-10)

 

These verses are spoken by Moshe as part of his speeches that comprise The book Devarim. This the book represents not Elohim’s word, but rather the words and thoughts of Moshe, who processes Elohim’s word, adapting it to the situation that the nation will face as it enters the land. The point of departure in this the book is the arena of life in this world. It is to this arena that Elohim will come and attach Himself, when the nation finds favor in His eyes. The focus here is man, both in the blessings and in the curses.

 

In contrast to Parashat Bechukotai, where the blessings and curses are formulated in the plural, here the Torah adopts the singular. The appeal is made to the nation as a single entity, and parts of it are addressed to the individual within the nation. This is a more intimate approach, targeting the more inward levels of the nation and of the individual.  In contrast to The book Vayikra, where the unit begins with following Elohim’s statutes and observing His commandments, the point of departure in The book Devarim is “hearing His voice,” an inner stance. The command is “this day,” suited to the present, not as a fixed law underlying Creation. From the very first verse, there is Divine feedback, and it focuses on man: “Yahweh your Elohim will set you on high above all the nations of the earth.”  This does not promise some or other action or quality, but rather an inner status relative to all the nations of the world. From this point on, there follows an assortment of blessings, expressing the abundance that can fill a person’s world and the goodness that surrounds him.  At the same time, there are the curses. Here, too, the heading speaks of a person responding in a certain way to Elohim’s voice: “And it shall be, if you shall not obey the voice of Yahweh your Elohim, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command you this day that all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you…” (15). From this point on, the subject is the individual or the nation and the status or position that they will occupy: “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field…” (v. 16); “Yahweh shall cause you to be smitten before your enemies; you shall go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them, and shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (v. 25), and more.

 

Affirmation of the Divine, Negation of the Human

 

We have already noted how the opening verses of Parashat Bechukotai (3-13) invite man to enter into Elohim’s statutes and His commandments, and these will be his support. We have also commented that the subject here is the practical observance of the laws, rather than the actual connection between man and Elohim. In addition, we pointed out the process that is gradually coming into being, from a starting point of physical and economic security, via tranquility with no fear and fertility, all the way to the Divine Presence going about amongst the nation. All of these elements belong to the same essence, in which a person accepts the Divine statutes as the basis for his life, and the result is that an edifice is built up with layer upon layer of Divine Presence and blessing.

 

Let us now consider the opposite side of the coin in The book Vayikra – a reality in which man goes astray, failing to accept Elohim’s statutes and commandments:

 

But if you will not obey Me, and will not do all these commands, and if you shall despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you will not do all My commandments, but that you break My covenant, I also will do this to you: I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart, and you shall sow our seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. And I will set My face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies; they who hate you shall reign over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. (Vayikra 26:14-17)

 

As a first stage, the subject is, “If you will not obey [or “listen to”] Me and will not perform all these commands.” We note that the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai stated, “If you follow My statutes…” There was no mention of “obeying” or “listening to Elohim’s voice.” The perspective here is a behavioral one – the observance and obeying of Elohim’s statutes and commandments, as set down in The book Vayikra, serving as man’s basis and support. Why, then, does the Torah now shift to “not listening” to Elohim? A review of the stages that follow reveals that this is a most significant idea, and the text uses it to introduce each stage of the deterioration.

 

This would seem to reflect the difference between positivist action and the avoidance of wrongdoing. When a person performs actions that are essentially the fulfillment of Divine commands, embodying Elohim’s Presence, then the dynamics of the situation concern the actions themselves. The actions entail a reality and presence of holiness that is not the product of the person’s own heart, and it gathers the sanctity that is active in his life, elevating his life and giving it stability. Such is the situation in the first unit, where no mention is made of the psychological movement accompanying the observance of the commandments. In contrast, when a person cuts himself off from this Divine Presence and reality, then he loses the sanctity that had supported him and given him so much. He is left just a regular person, and he cannot ignore his inner motivations and the process that he is undergoing. In this context, the “not listening to Elohim’s voice” makes its presence felt as the subject; it is a sort of awakening of an inner rebellion that sets off on its way.

 

There are two other expressions of the same phenomenon. Following mention of “not listening” to Elohim, the verse continues:

 

And if you shall despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you will not perform all of My commandments, but that you violate My covenant… (v. 15)

 

The verse describes three distinct psychological stances: in relation to the statutes there is “despising”; in relation to judgments there is “abhorrence”; and in relation to the covenant there is “violation,” representing a sort of betrayal. What is the background to this focus on these subtle inner movements, in contrast to the earlier description? Why does the text not suffice with a description of “not listening” to Elohim, or avoidance/failure to follow His statutes and perform His commandments? It would seem that the text is pointing to a particular phenomenon: in the absence of Divinely-oriented action, a vacuum is formed, and as a result, a person’s inner inclination will begin to have its own say. Unlike the commandments of The book Devarim, many of which are related to the various circles of social life, and in this sense are more naturally accepted by the human mind, the commandments of The book Vayikra are Elohim’s statutes and judgments, which do not necessarily make sense to the human mind. If a person cuts himself off from Elohim’s statutes and judgments, he may discover within himself a sense of abhorrence towards them, leading him to violate the covenant.

 

Another expression of the same idea is to be found in the structure of the unit (vv. 3-13). We have already noted the structure that begins with physical survival, via security and tranquility, then strengthening through fertility and multiplying, all the way to Elohim’s Presence amongst the nation. In this structure, the movement is from the tangible and profane to the abstract and holy. The process begins with physical welfare, moving up stage by stage, and culminating in a spiritual reality: Elohim’s Presence. Accordingly, in the description of the deterioration that happens in the absence of observance of the commandments, there is an opposite movement: a stage-by-stage deterioration, working from the inside outwards. This psychological and spiritual process starts with terror and sorrow, a breaking of “the pride of your power,” and a crumbling of the individual and of the nation until eventually the entire edifice falls.  Let us review the stages:

 

First stage: Elohim will visit you with terror and with diseases that will be soul-destroying. Your work will be in vain: you will sow and your enemies will eat the produce; you will be driven before them; ultimately – you will flee even where there is no pursuer (vv. 14-17). All these elements express weakness and a tenuous hold on life. A grasp of Elohim’s commandments provides a stable, Divine, whole support. If you despise and neglect and reject this position, your very life force will be weakened.

Second stage: “And I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your skies like iron and your earth like brass, and your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruit” (vv. 18-20). The results of your rejection of Elohim’s laws are now a “breaking of the pride of your power” – the scaffolding of your existence and a cessation of the life-giving blessings of the heavens and the earth. This is not just a weakening of life, but a complete loss and cessation of power. Your strength, too, will be spent in vain; the land will not give produce, nor will the trees give fruit.

Third stage: “I will send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number, and your highways shall be desolate” (vv. 21-22). Following the weakening of life in the first two stages, Elohim will now sent wild animals that will leave you bereaved. From weakness we have moved to death, bereavement, and highways that are desolate.

Fourth stage: “I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge My covenant, and when you are gathered together in your cities, I will send the pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall return you your bread by weight, and you shall eat, and not be satisfied” (vv. 23-26). The sword avenges the covenant that was violated. You will gather in your cities with a view to defending yourselves, but the result will be the opposite: there will be pestilence among you.

Fifth stage: This stage describes complete destruction. In the first four stages, the punishments were local, damaging some or other aspect of life. Now the catastrophe is all-encompassing:

 

And you shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall you eat. And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols, and My soul shall abhor you. And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries to desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors. And I will bring the land into desolation, and your enemies who dwell in it shall be astonished at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and draw out a sword after you, and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. (27-33)

 

You will consume the flesh of your dead children, your carcasses with lie over the ruins of your abominations, your cities will be laid waste, your sanctuaries will be desolate, and Elohim will not smell the savor of your sweet odors. All will be silent and in ruins.

 

The text then goes on to explain the process that has taken place: the land will rest and enjoy its Shabbat – a reminder of the fact that you did not observe the Shabbat, the testament that the land is Mine. You did not make Elohim manifest in reality, and the result is that you have lost the foundation and support for your existence.

 

Epilogue

 

Our study began with a comparison between our parashat and the parallel unit of blessings and curses in The book Devarim. In both places, observance of the commandments will bring goodness for the individual and for the nation, while abandoning them will bring a series of punishments. However, the two units are quite different: they use different words, threaten different punishments, have a different structure, and more. We have tried above to point out the essential character of each, with attention to the respective contexts – The book Vayikra and The book Devarim.

 

In the former, the world of sanctity is an existing, fixed fact, and man is required to approach it and to make it a permanent fixture in his life, step by step. The room that he makes in his life for the Divine, for that which is holy, will determine the extent of Elohim’s Presence in his life. This presence, which places and elevates the nation before Elohim, is the climax of the process in this unit, and it formulated with the words, “I am Yahweh your Elohim Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen, and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and made you walk upright” (v. 13). The emphasis here is on Elohim’s presence in the picture and His power to uplift man and the nation. In The book Devarim, in contrast, Elohim approaches and enters man’s own boundaries, revealing the blessing that exists in his life and the Infinite that is embedded in it. The focus of this unit is the blessed man, and man at his best, when he obeys the voice of Yahweh his Elohim. Conversely, when he does not obey Elohim, his life becomes beset with curses; there is no healing for his soul and he loses his life’s compass and life itself.

 

We then examined a discrepancy between the two processes – growth vs. punishment. The first rests upon the presence of holiness and its power to uplift man, stage by stage, with less emphasis on his own inner processes. In the absence of Elohim’s laws, the text describes a process that is guided by man’s own nature. This deterioration begins with terror, flight where there is no pursuer, a breaking of “the pride of your strength,” an ebbing of strength and a collapse of the entire life system.

 

This “natural” deterioration rests upon regular life and the processes comprising it, once again testifying to the fundamental fact that underlies all of The book Vayikra. At the beginning of the the book, Elohim invites Moshe into the Tent of Meeting, and there he hears the Divine words spoken from “there,” from the heights of sanctity, from the pious perspective, to which Moshe has been called. We might have imagined a Divine perspective that takes man somewhere “else,” that rests upon a different set of rules, with no connection or dialogue with the nature of the world and its laws. Yet, over and over again, the text adopts points of reference that indicate that no other infrastructure exits. The human infrastructure is itself a Divine creation; upon it structures are built and layers are added. When it falls, they, too, will fall; when it shines with glory, they too will be glorified.