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Torah Sparks

May 28, 2005 - 19 Iyar 5765

Annual: Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 747; Hertz p. 542)
Triennial: Leviticus 26:3 - 27:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 747; Hertz p. 542)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 - 17:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 763; Hertz p. 551)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


Parashat Behukotai continues the quest for holiness through God's law, which is the hallmark of the Book of Leviticus of which it is the concluding parasha. Following the recitation of Leviticus 27:34, we will chant "Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek," "May we go from strength to strength." This traditional declaration marks the conclusion of reading each book of the Torah. Once an expression of support for the Torah reader himself at the end of each aliyah, it now marks our transition as we shift from the strength we derive from reading one book to the strength we will derive from the next.

The rewards for following God's word, according to Parashat Behukotai, are myriad. The rains will come when needed, the harvest will be plentiful and the land will be safe and at peace. Both evil beasts and mortal enemies will cease to be a threat. The Israelites will grow in number and God's covenant will be maintained. God will walk among the people and continue the connection begun at Sinai.

By contrast, failure to live up to our half of the covenant will result in terror and conquest, poverty and famine. Punishment will be sevenfold. God will destroy the cities and those who dwell within and those who remain will be consumed by fear. The few who survive and accept the consequences and repent will be restored by God, in acknowledgement of the covenants of the patriarchs. We shift now to a discussion of vows - including the donation to be made based on a priestly estimation of the person's relative value and the value of the animal brought to mark a vow. Similar rules apply to the use of a house or field as part of a vow. As in the sale of land, the value of the land is affected by the proximity of the jubilee year.

In all of these cases, the assignment of ownership of person or property through a vow provides a valuable source of income for the sanctuary and those in its employ. In those cases where a recall of the property is permitted, an additional fifth of the value is added on as part of the redemption.

Discussion Theme 1: "God's Soul"

"I will set my dwelling in your midst and my soul will not abhor you." (Leviticus 26:11)

Derash: Study

  • "And I will place my dwelling in your midst: This is the Holy Temple." (Rashi on Leviticus 26:11)
  • "We have been taught that R. Yose said: The Presence never came down below, and Moses and Elijah never ascended on high, for Scripture says, 'The heavens are the heavens for the Lord; and it is the earth that He hath given to the children of men' (Psalm 115:16)." (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 5a)
  • "R. Abin son of R. Ada in the name of R. Isaac says: How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin? For it is said: The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength. 'By His right hand': this is the Torah; for it is said: At His right hand was a fiery law unto them. … R. Nahman b. Isaac said to R. Hiyya b. Abin: What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe? He replied to him:" And who is like your people Israel, a nation one on the earth..." (Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot 6a)
  • "… For whoever pronounces the word God and really means You, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in a relationship that includes all others..." (Martin Buber, I and Thou)
  • "It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still, small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of mind, but ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills the whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued, yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?" (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. This verse is sandwiched between the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee (in Parashat Behar) and the curse (tokhehah) which is to befall us if we fail to live up to not only those laws, but all the laws which have been given until this point. It is part of a brief section of blessings which pales in the shadow of the punishments which await our noncompliance. Yet, is it really a blessing to be told "you won't be hated"? What does this suggest to us about not only what we say, but the way in which we say it?
  2. God's Soul? Do we actually think of God as having a soul? What would its nature/purpose be? Why is this the way God is referred to here? Can we use Buber's I-thou imagery as a window into the nature of both the human and the divine soul?
  3. What does this verse and the commentaries which accompany it say about the manifestation of the Divine Presence? Can God be present if there is no designated dwelling place? How do we draw in God's presence without a physical dwelling?
  4. Consider here the idea of God's tefillin. Where our tefillin hold the words Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One," God's tefillin are home to a different verse: Umi-k'amkha Yisrael - "Who is like your people Israel, a singular nation in the land." Our deepest yearning and God's deepest yearning meet in the same place. What do we achieve by wearing tefillin? If God wears tefillin, what is its purpose? What does this midrash aim to teach us about God? About ourselves?
  5. In his book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel draws out the notion that from the time of Eden, God has sought us out. The question "Ayeka?'" "Where are you?," which God poses to Adam appears to be rhetorical. Can it truly be that God does not know where Adam is? Does God mean the words as they are being used? What is God searching for?

Discussion Theme 2: "The Bitter End"

"… I will wreak misery upon you…" (Leviticus 26:16)

Derash: Study

  • "The reason for this is that the soul of man is the lamp of the Lord, deriving its sustenance from on High and by its nature, it cannot die. It is not made of material, mortal substances. It is unnecessary there for the text to state, that as a reward for a good deed, the soul will live forever. It states, rather, that as a punishment for iniquities, the soul will become tarnished, defiled and cut off from its normal existence, just the same as a branch is cut off from the tree." (Ramban)
  • "All the blessings and the curses enumerated in the Torah may then be explained in this manner. If you have served the Lord with joyfulness, He will send you the blessings and withhold the curses, giving you the opportunity to become versed in the Torah and preoccupied in its performance, in order to merit the Hereafter." (Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah)
  • "The empty-headed have asserted that the curses exceed the blessings, but that is not true. The blessings were stated in a general fashion, the curses in detail in order to deter and frighten the hearers." (ibn Ezra)
  • "Love him who reproves you, and hate him who praises you." (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 29)
  • "Belief in retribution is an essential doctrine of every religion. It serves as an incentive to the worship and service of God." (Ephraim Rottenberg, "Reward and Punishment," in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The verse cited above is just the tip of the iceberg of the tokhekhah or reproof, stated here as well as in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Why do the consequences of failure to meet the standards set by God come so late in the telling? Why aren't they interspersed more directly to establish cause and effect? What is the impact of offering these punishments as the response to not following in God's ways, rather than identifying them with particular offenses?
  2. Rambam seems to suggest that the lack of specificity is tied to the manner in which the obligations are fulfilled, rather than the fulfillment (or lack thereof) in and of itself. What justification could there be for punishment of this degree for deeds performed in the wrong spirit? How does this influence our understanding of God?
  3. Noting that there are 30 verses of curse and 13 of blessing, how can ibn Ezra say that there is more blessing present here than curse? Why should the balance be three-fold in favor of punishment?
  4. Linking the words of the Ramban with Ephraim Rottenberg's comment on the necessity of retribution (and Avot d'Rabbi Natan's praise of punishment), what are the redeeming elements of these 30 verses? How can we view the threat of consequence as an elevating experience? If we do not view them as elevating, are they compelling in any way other than instilling fear?
  5. When we chant this section of the Torah, it is meant to be done rapidly and in an undertone, a form-follows-function moment in which we seek not to hear that which we do not want to experience. Yet, we do not live in an era in which we believe that divine retribution is the response to our failure to fulfill mitzvot. If there is no consequence to our action, what gives the halakhic system its mandate? What compels us to follow the moral and ethical norms? And the ritual obligations? How do we rise above the expectation of consequence to cast our lot with our people?

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