Parshat B’chukotai opens with the familiar theme of reward and punishment for our observance or non-observance of God’s commandments. This basic framework of “if you keep my commandments there’ll be peace and prosperity and if you don’t…” is presented numerous times in the Torah, and we see it daily in the second paragraph of the Shma. This dynamic is the dominant theme of the book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe addresses the generation which will enter The Land without him. Reward and punishment however seem strangely out of place at the end of Vayikra, still encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai. What are these blessings and curses doing here, and what do they teach us which is different from the Shma?
The book of Vayikra is about Holiness. Holy offerings, Holy people, Holy space, Holy times, Holy land. The opening line of (Lev. 1:1) “And He called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying” serves as the archetype for the entire book. Just as Rashi explains the “calling” to Moshe as an articulation of God’s affection and an expression of closeness to God, so too, all the laws of Holiness in this book are about how to live a life of closeness with Hashem. While there are mitzvot in the book of Vayikra which are contingent on being in the Land of Israel, their inclusion in Vayikra tells us that these mitzvot are instructions for living in God’s presence. Possessing the land is the main focus of the book of Devarim, but here, it’s about relationship. That being said, the presence of reward and punishment is coming not just to warn us to be careful to keep the laws of Holiness but is articulating a specific aspect of what living in Holiness means.
The parsha opens with the big IF. (Lev. 26:3) “IF you walk in My laws and faithfully guard My commandments and do them.” So what exactly is it that we’ll be rewarded for? Keeping God’s laws, right? Not so fast. Rashi points out that the last word is “doing them”, so then what is “walking in His laws”? Rashi and his super-commentaries tell us it breaks down into seven parts. 1) Putting effort into learning Torah in order that we 2)understand it, 3) know how to do it, 4) teach it, so that 5) our children will understand it, 6)and so our children will learn to do the mitzvot, and so 7) that we will take upon ourselves to actually do the mitzvot. That means the conditions for reward here are more about our attitude than about our behaviour.
We can see God’s intention reflected in the final passage summarizing the rewards. (26:12) “And I will walk amongst you, and I will be your God and you will be my people”. This is in stark contrast to Adam and Eve who (Gen 3:8) “heard the sound of Hashem walking in the Garden… and Adam and his wife hid from Hashem”. All the blessings of fertility, peace and tranquillity promised if we have the right attitude are all about returning to the Garden of Eden and living in God’s presence. Our sages have said (Avoda Zara 22b) that when we received the Torah, the ‘snake venom’ which had tainted Adam and Eve left us. That means that when our attitude towards Torah is one of making space for God’s affection, Torah is the antidote to the existential dread of facing God. It allows us to walk with God without being afraid.
And speaking of being afraid… “If you don’t keep my commandments…”
Just like the positive attitude towards Torah which is to be rewarded was divided into seven, so too, the attributes which will draw suffering upon us are also seven. The verse says: (26:14) “But if you will not listen to me and refuse to do all my commandments. If you scorn my decrees and abhor my laws and reject all my instructions, and so violate my covenant.”
Rashi again breaks these verses into seven specific vices: 1) Not learning Torah; 2) Not wanting to do what the Torah says; 3) Being put off by those who DO learn and keep the Torah; 4) Hating the Sages; 5) Actively preventing others from learning Torah and doing Mitzvot; 6) denying that God commanded us at all, And finally 7) Denying that God even exists.
Certainly, one who carries these attitudes is going to have a very hard time feeling God’s love.
In the same way that our positive attitude toward fulfilling God’s commandments and our openness to God’s love brings about prosperity and peace in the world, so too God tells us here, that the opposite is also true.
When Adam and Eve heard God walking about in the Garden they were afraid. Why? Because they felt guilty and thought God was out to get them. To punish them. And so they hid from God. Their fear of punishment created the reality in which they were punished.
So too, when we do these seven things, we are also hiding from God, and invite greater suffering upon ourselves. Just like our ill-fated ancestors, we too are sent out to face a world which will not easily yield its bounty. We toil and struggle but to no avail. All sorts of maladies may come. Sickness, poverty, oppression and afflictions of body and soul.
In such circumstances, it’s not hard to feel that God has it in for us. Here in our Parsha, H’ calls this attitude “walking with me in Keri בקרי.” The word “Keri” connotes both coldness קר and coincidence מקרה. Giving God the cold shoulder. Refusal to see our suffering as Hashem nudging us back towards his path of righteous delight. It’s all just a coincidence. These things happen. Like Pharaoh, we harden our hearts against God because of our suffering…
At every step in the process, God says to us, (26:23) “If you continue to walk with me in Keri, I will walk with you in Keri and I will strike you seven times because of your sins.”
So it goes further… We suffer more. Seven times. We get colder and colder. For some it can progress all the way to Pharaoh’s iconic “I know not your God”, dissociating ourselves from God, from Torah, from the land of Israel and even from the Jewish people. We are conquered, swallowed up and assimilated in foreign lands. Out of desperation, we turn back to Hashem and we (26:40) “confess our sins and the sins of our ancestors”. But it doesn’t work! More guilt doesn’t break the cycle. So what does? (26:41) “Then they will surrender their uncircumcised hearts…and then their sin will be absolved” God wants our hearts. Our Love.
Adam and Eve’s mistake was expecting wrath and punishment from God, so that’s exactly what they got. If however our understanding of God’s purpose in giving us the Torah is to show us affection, everything turns around. The cycle of punishment is only broken when we turn back to God in love, knowing He loves us and teaching our children to feel that love through Torah.
We’re stuck with God. Will we walk coldly and suffer, or will we walk joyously with love?
Rabbi Shlomo Schachter
Please enjoy this additional video Devar Torah from Rabbi Rosenblatt.