By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
The final parsha in the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai, begins with stunning clarity of the terms of Jewish life under the covenant. In the first part, there is an idyllic picture of the blessing of Divine favor. If the Israelites follow God’s decrees and keep His commandments, there will be rain, the earth will yield its fruit, the people will flourish, they will have children and the Divine Presence will be in their midst(1).
The other side of the equation is terrifying with the curses which will befall the nation should the People fail to honor their mission as a ‘holy nation’:
“But if you will not listen to me and carry out these commandments, I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life; you will plant seed in vain because your enemies will eat it; if after all of this, you still will not listen to Me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over; I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron, and the ground beneath you like bronze; I will turn your cities into ruins and destroy your Sanctuaries; I will waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled; as for those of you who still live amongst your enemies, I will make your hearts so fearful that the sound of a windblown leaf will put you into flight; you will run as though fleeing from the sword and you will fall, although no one is actually pursuing you”(2).
Read in its entirety, this passage is shattering in its impact, most particularly because so much of it came true at various times in Jewish history.
All of this is only viable if the Jewish people lived together, in one nation, on their own land. But what when the Jews suffered defeat and exile and were eventually scattered across the earth? They no longer had any of the conventional lineaments of a nation. They were no longer living in the same place with the same language. Rashi and his family were living in northern Europe, speaking French(3), Maimonides was living in Muslim Egypt, speaking and writing in Arabic(4).
Nor did the Jews share the same fate. Those in northern Europe were suffering persecution and massacres during the Crusades. The Jews of Spain were expelled and compelled to wander around the world as refugees. In later years, there were more horrors for the Jews who migrated to Eastern Europe, and beyond. What constituted these Jews as a single nation?
Like a situation, where a parent warns a child of horrifying consequences for disobedience, parsha Bechukotai ends with momentous hope:
“But despite all else, when you are in enemy territory, I will not reject or despise you; I will never break my covenant with you, because I am the Lord, your God, and for your sake, I will always remember the covenant I made with your forefathers”(5).
Even in their worst hours, according to this final portion of Leviticus, the Jewish people would never be destroyed. It was the covenant that enabled the Israelites to become a nation, bound them to one another and bound them to God. This same covenant links every Jew to one another, with the same ties of mutual responsibility.
(1) LEVITICUS (26:3-26:6)
(2) LEVITICUS (26:14-36)
(4) Jewish Virtual Library
(5) LEVITICUS (44-45)