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Torah Sparks

Parashat Behukotai
May 17, 2014 – 17 Iyar 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

If the Israelites follow God’s commandments, they will have unmatched peace and prosperity. But if they do not follow the commandments, a litany of suffering will befall them, with conditions worsening each time the Israelites turn their backs on God’s words.

The Israelites are required to maintain the Tabernacle; the amount of money each person must commit depends on his/her gender and age. It is possible to pay by providing an animal or one’s house; later, the initial owner can retain ownership with payment plus 20% interest. A firstborn animal or proscribed property cannot be redeemed. Tithes can be redeemed with payment plus 20% interest.

Theme #1: A Numbers Game

Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. (Leviticus 26:8)

Among the blessings given to a faithful Israel is the ability (via God) to defeat enemies far more numerous.

“Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand.” Is that the correct reckoning? Surely it should have [only] read: “And a hundred of you shall give chase to two thousand?” But we must conclude that the few who observe the Torah are not to be compared to the many who observe the Torah. — Sifra

The empty-headed have declared that the curses are more numerous than the blessings, but they have not spoken truth. The blessings are uttered in broad general terms, while the curses are stated in more detail, to awe and frighten the hearers. — Ibn Ezra

The religious vocabulary of the Torah, and indeed the Tanakh, is pervasively this-worldly. Life predominates as the supreme value and relegates an inchoate notion of the afterlife — Sheol — to the margins of collective consciousness. Accordingly, retribution or reward are natural phenomena, occurring in the here and now. The language betrays no notion of a soul that transcends death. — Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Questions for Discussion:

The Sifra notes that the ratio of Israelites defeating their enemies changes in the sentence, but if the more people there are who are obedient to the Torah, the greater their clout will be. Is there “power in numbers?” How can a large group of supporters give us strength? Or should we rely on the quality, not necessarily the quantity, of others’ support?

Ibn Ezra claims (quite vociferously) that the curses and rewards in Leviticus 26 are equal in number, even though far more verses are devoted to the curses. If we disagree with Ibn Ezra’s logic and believe that there are more curses than blessings, should that change our view of God? Or (as we asked in the last paragraph) can’t we also consider the quality and not quantity of what God promises?

Rabbi Schorsch reminds us that the Torah does not speak of reward or punishment in an afterlife; it certainly mentions nothing about a Messianic age or the eternal nature of the soul – those were largely post-biblical concepts. Does an emphasis on the here-and-now add urgency to our tasks in the present and the immediate future? Even if we believe (as many Jews do) in some sort of “World to Come,” is it better to make our life decisions based on the notion that our existence ceases at the end of our natural lives?

Theme #2: Don’t Tread on Me

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you … (Leviticus 26:14-16a)

The list of punishments for the Israelites who do not follow Torah appears to far exceed the list of rewards to a faithful Israel.

[Regarding] “If you do not obey Me …” Why does it stress the word “Me?” This means that he is one who recognizes his Creator, but yet chooses to defy Him. — Sifra

[It happened] during the days of the youth of Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, when he was near the Baal Shem Tov. On the Shabbat when we read the Tochacha, the great scolding, which euphemistically in language filled with light, or blind, referred to as the Sabbath of blessing, he was called up to the Torah. At first he felt bad because they had assigned to him of all portions, this one! Behold, the Baal Shem Tov himself was reading the Torah, and when he began the reading of the portion, Rabbi Menachem Nachum felt he was a person who knew the sick and the burden of different pains, because with the reading of each verse from the great scolding, the pain of another limb was sent away and departed. So it went from one limb to another, until by the completion of the reading of the portion, his entire body was healed. — Mignazay Tzadikim

Those who work to cast off the yoke of the Law and the commandments begin by rejecting the “statutes”of the Torah on the grounds that they have no logical reason or purpose. Man, they claim, cannot be forced to do things for which he can find no good reason. But this is only an excuse, for from the “statutes” he proceeds to reject also those commandments for which there are logical reasons. For their aim is nothing less than to break the yoke of the Torah. The Lord says to the Children of Israel: “And if you will reject My laws”: You will begin by rejecting My laws, the laws for which you can find no obvious reason. Next, “spurn My rules”: You will not want to observe even those commandments which have logical reasons, because it is your intention is to “not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant.” — HaDrash VeHaEyun

Questions for Discussion:

Sifra forwards the idea that God considers flouting the Torah’s laws as a personal affront, that it is far worse to acknowledge God’s existence and to ignore the Torah than to never acknowledge God in the first place. Does this reasoning partially exonerate one who is not knowledgeable, i.e. the child who does not know to ask in the Passover Seder? Or does Sifra find it unfathomable that a Jew would not recognize God and the Torah in the first place?

Our story from Mignazay Tzadikim tells of someone who is healed when standing close to the Torah when God’s rebuke is read to the congregation. What is the moral of this story? Is it that one who is strong enough to directly face the possibility of failure and punishment also becomes strong enough to combat it, thus symbolized by his body’s healing? Or is it that the Baal Shem Tov’s very presence is enough to heal Rabbi Menachem Nachum, since he knows that he will not have to face a potentially difficult future alone?

Unlike some people who find it easier to observe Jewish laws that appear logical, HaDrash VeHaEyun argues that it is most essential to follow the laws that do not seem to have a particular reason. Does following laws that may be more “mysterious” show a stronger faith in God? Or is it our responsibility to continually struggle with rules that don’t have obvious logic so that we may one day discover reasons of our own to follow them?

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