The “style” of this week’s Torah portion — which marks the end of the Book of Leviticus — departs somewhat from the style of the other portions in this book and indeed from the style of the entire Torah.
In place of the narrative or recitation of legal strictures to which we have become accustomed, Bechukotai contains an extensive tochecha, “rebuke.” Here, the Torah calls on man to follow the law in deed and in spirit, and warns of the consequences of abandoning its teachings and God. This is one of two major rebukes in the Torah, the other coming at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy.
The context of the rebuke at the end of Deuteronomy, before the people enter the land, seems natural and understandable. On the eve of this enormous event, as the Jewish people face the responsibilities and challenges of their encounter with the peoples of the Promised Land, the Torah imparts extensive warning not stray from the word of God.
On the other hand, the section of rebuke here in Parshat Bechukotai, is not as readily placed in context, coming in the very middle of the Torah, with the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy still to follow.
Of course, we must remember that the Jews were not originally supposed to wander the desert for 40 years; indeed the decree declaring that the sojourn would be prolonged did not come until after the episode of the spies, which had not occurred by this point in the narrative. At this point in the text, at the completion of the Book of Leviticus, the Jews should be preparing to enter the Holy Land. Therefore we can see the rebuke here as similar in context to the rebuke which will appear at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.
Rebukes and Curses
But why were each of these sections recorded for posterity then? Especially when the Jews did not enter the land as per God’s original plan?
Nachmanides addresses this issue in his commentary on this Torah portion:
And know that all of these curses refer to the destruction of the First Temple. (Ramban B’chukotai)
According to Nachmanides, this rebuke – which he equates with a curse – refers to the destruction of the First Temple. Nachmanides adds that the destruction of the Second Temple is alluded to in the second rebuke at the end of Deuteronomy.
His source is actually this passage in the Zohar:
It is said that the curses in Torat Kohanim (Leviticus) are referring to the destruction of the First Temple, while the curses listed in Mishna Torah (Deuteronomy) refer to the Second Temple. The curses in Leviticus contain guarantees, and display the love which God has for man … The curses in Mishna Torah, contain no such guarantees or comforting words [that one day redemption will come] (Zohar Chadash Ki Tavo 59c-60a)
Our conclusion must be that, according to Nachmanides, a parallel exists between God’s original plan to bring the people into Israel and the First Commonwealth of Israel that arose so many years later. Furthermore, he draws a parallel between the Second Temple and the second, alternate plan to enter the land that is described in Deuteronomy. Despite the fact that these teachings were related in a specific context to a specific audience, they are recorded in the Torah because they contain information which will be vital for future generations.
Destruction of the Temples
A number of sections in the Talmud record various reasons for the destruction of the two Temples, and the subsequent exiles. Clearly something as momentous as this could have multiple causes. The most famous teaching regarding the destruction of both Temples is recorded in the Talmud in Yoma 9a-b:
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Torta said: “Why was Shilo destroyed? Because of the degradation of the holy things within it. Jerusalem? The First Temple, why was it destroyed? Because of idolatry, sexual licentiousness, and bloodshed which took place. But the last (second Temple), we knew them [those who were responsible]. They were diligent in Torah study, and were careful with tithes. Why were they exiled? Because they loved money, and man hated his neighbor, which teaches us that when man hates his neighbor it is as difficult before God as idolatry sexual licentiousness, and bloodshed.” (Tosefta Menachot 13:4)
These reasons for the destruction enumerated by Rav Yochanan ben Torta have entered into the consciousness of the Jewish community, to the point that we would expect some reference to these imputed sins in the Torah text which would prove Nachmanides’s theory. Analysis of the rebuke in this Torah portion reveals one word — keri, “against Me” — which is repeated time after time to describe the type of behavior which would lead to destruction:
‘If you walk contrary to Me, and not listen to Me…’ (Leviticus 26:21)
The term keri, “against Me” is used no less than seven times within a short span of text in our Torah portion — see Leviticus 26:21, 23, 24, 27, 28, 40, 41 — and never mentioned again in the entire Torah!
The word is translated as “against Me” or “contrary to Me” actually comes from the root kareh meaning “happenstance.” The implication is that all the terrible curses listed will result if we take God for granted.
The Attitude of Happenstance
The world-view which results from the attitude of keri is one in which God ceases to be an integral part of the individual’s life. This is the beginning of a process which may lead to a far more dangerous conclusion: as God is forgotten, man deludes himself into thinking that life is merely a series of coincidences. He believes that there is no divine hand guiding his personal or world history. The conclusion of such an approach is atheism.
The Torah ascribes such a world view to Amalek, the quintessential enemy of the Jewish people:
Remember what Amalek did to you; when you left Egypt they happened upon you on the road. (Deut. 28:17-18)
The term korcha, “happened,” is derived from the same root as keri.
Rashi explains the term korcha as “a term of coincidence.” Rashi’s short comment teaches that the spiritual power of Amalek emanates from a world view that all is coincidence, blind meaningless fate, and that there is no higher or greater significance to life. When the Jews become bogged down in a spiritual quagmire, they were susceptible to the attack of Amalek. When the Jews behaved like Amalek, the real Amalek appeared.
The Jews in the desert failed to appreciate the Divine presence that enveloped and protected them, and they became their own enemies; they became Amalek. Therefore the real Amalek appeared and attacked. Their only recourse was to pray to God – an explicit expression of faith and cognizance of the existence of a Divine Being.
Do the hands of Moses make war? … Rather this teaches us the whole time that the Jews looked heavenward, and dedicated their hearts to their Father in heaven they were victorious, if not they fell [in battle](Mishna Rosh Hashana 3:8).
The Mishna stresses that the victory was not achieved through some magical intercession on the part of Moses – who raised his hands to heaven and the Jews won, but when he got tired and could not keep his hands up they lost. What brought victory was the prayer of the people.
Because the people had failed to properly appreciate God, they took Him for granted. The opposite attitude, as expressed by prayer, mended the rift which had been formed between them and God.
A World Without God
When the people are rebuked in this Torah portion, they are warned not to lead a life based on this philosophy of coincidence, for this approach – seeing the world without God – is the first step toward an abandonment of all values. This idea is expressed in a Tosefta, (Shavuot 3:6) which asks “Who is the most dangerous man”? The Tosefta’s answer is that the atheist, even if he is a moral man, is most dangerous, because there is no basis for his morality.
In the eyes of the Tosefta, today’s moral atheist today may be tomorrow’s murderer. For example, pure logic that abhors murder may not prohibit euthanasia; quite the contrary, it may justify it. Similarly, the Jews who had no longer felt a connection with God soon found themselves alienated from God to the extent that idolatry, sexual licentiousness and bloodshed not only were no longer taboo, they had become the norm.
The Talmud’s expression of this phenomenon is fascinating:
The Temple was destroyed … because they did not make a blessing before learning Torah. (Nedarim 81a)
This source seems difficult to understand. If Jews of that time were actively engaged in Torah study but merely forgot to make the proper blessings, should this terrible destruction be the consequence?
Rather, the Talmud is being purposely succinct. This concise language points out a “secularization” of what should be holy: One who does not make a blessing prior to learning is making a statement about his learning. The Torah learned in this fashion is something mundane, perhaps intellectually stimulating, but it is not part of a dialogue with the Divine.
The person who can learn the Torah (as literature, for example) and not feel the breath of eternity on his face, is lacking a piece of heaven; such a person is missing the holiness – the very essence of Torah learning. Only those who have created the break in their minds between themselves and God’s personal involvement in their lives can forget to make a blessing on learning, and transform a potential rendezvous with the Divine, Eternal God into a mere intellectual exercise.
We may now look back at the teaching of Nachmanides and the Talmudic tradition regarding the destruction of the First Temple. The connection between the “happenstance” attitude of keri and the total moral breakdown of Jewish society which led to the destruction becomes more clear.
However, the destruction of the Second Temple raises a more serious challenge; our tradition teaches that the cause for the destruction was the “groundless hatred” which was prevalent at that time. In this case of the second rebuke (in the Book of Deuteronomy), the Torah gives us a clear reason for the calamities which have befallen upon us:
All these curses will come upon you, will pursue you, will overtake you, until you will be destroyed, because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord God … Because you would not serve God with joyfulness, and gladness of heart. (Deut. 28:45,47)
The Torah informs us, in clear, unequivocal terms, what spiritual deficiency would be cause for the rebuke to come to fruition. How is the failure to serve God with joy related to the groundless hatred which brought about the destruction?
Rabbi Yochanan Zwieg once taught an idea which would explain the connection. He noted that there is one person in Tanach who is described as having the trait of “joy and gladness of heart”:
Then Haman went out that day joyful and with a glad heart.(Esther 5:9)
How strange, that Haman, the most famous of Amalek’s descendants, should serve as a prototype for proper behavior! The fact of the matter is that Haman had every right to be happy. The queen herself had just invited him to a second, private party, with only the king and queen in attendance. He saw himself as a success. Arguably there was not a richer, more powerful man in all the kingdom, and Haman knew it.
When he came home he called for his friends and for his wife Zeresh, and Haman recounted for them the glory of his riches, and his many children … (Esther 5:10)
Haman had everything going for him. Nonetheless, when he saw Mordechai, who refused to bow to him, Haman was filled with anger. After recounting to his loved ones all his good fortune, Haman says:
But all this is meaningless to me when I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate. (Esther 5:13)
Let us consider Haman’s “plight.” He is the most powerful man in the empire, save the king himself. He is rich, has a loving, supportive wife, many children, countless wealth. He has one minor problem: There is this one Jew who refuses to deify him, but Haman has already put a plan into action that will wreak his vengeance on Mordechai. Not only is Mordechai to die, but his entire extended family will die with him. Haman’s demented mind called for a holocaust in response to being slighted by one man.
But the knowledge that Mordechai and all the Jews would soon be dead was not enough to satiate the evil within Haman – he needed more. His hatred was so consuming that he displayed remarkable carelessness in his decision to execute Mordechai.
Even a cursory glance at the king’s records would have made Haman realize that targeting Mordechai as an individual was unwise. Yet Haman’s anger seethed, he needed vengeance and he needed it immediately.
This overwhelming anger caused Haman’s downfall. He was unable to enjoy the gifts bestowed upon him because he was fixated on anger and hatred toward Mordechai. It is interesting to note that Haman is a descendant of Amalek and represents “Amalekian” philosophy. This philosophy begins with seeing the world without a God, and leads to Haman seeing himself as a deity. From this warped perspective we can understand his anger toward Mordichai, who refused to bow down.
The sudden fall of Haman was precipitated by his hate. His hate obliterated his “joyful and glad heart.” We can therefore conclude that there is, in fact, a connection between a joyful heart and groundless hatred. One can expel the other.
The Broader Perspective
When we take the broader perspective, an interesting pattern emerges: When the Jews acted like Amalek and took God for granted, they were exiled, and soon found themselves under the rule of thumb of a crazed Amalakian despot, as if the Divine message was “If you choose Amalek and their world-view over Me, I will fulfill your wish.”
Divine justice was exact. The people who saw life as coincidence found themselves confronted by the leading representative of coincidence – Haman, who promptly drew lots to determine the proper time to destroy the Jewish nation. Just as their ancestors before them, when the Jews turned to their Father in Heaven, admitted that they have erred, and fully accepted the dominion of the Almighty, the power that Haman had over them dissipated. The Jews were victorious.
As a gift, God leaves the Jews with a phenomenal lesson in how not to behave as they are about to re-enter the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. God reiterates, in the Book of Esther, His message that man must worship God with joy and appreciate all the good in his life. Otherwise, man runs the risk of turning his joy into hate, and turning the Temple to rubble.
Let us not repeat this same mistake. Instead let us turn to the teaching of the Sages:
Who is considered wealthy? He who is happy with his share. (Avot 4:1)
It is this happiness which is the key to Avodat Hashem, “the service of God.” It was the lack of this happiness which destroyed the Temple. Relating to God with this type of attitude will surely contribute to the rebuilding of the Temple.
Let us return to the concluding teaching of Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta:
But the Third Temple, may it be built speedily in our days … many nations will gather and say, let us go to the Mountain of God, to the House of the Lord of Jacob … arise let us go up to Zion to the Lord our God. (Tosefta Minachot 13:4)
When we cease to act like the nations of the world, and they begin to act like we are supposed to, history will reach its apex, and a wonderful new day will dawn. God’s presence will emanate from Zion. And war will become a thing of the past.
The world will become a joyful place, with no hatred, and all people will serve God with joyfulness and gladness of heart. May we all live to see and partake of the joy on that day. Amen!
This D’var Torah originally appeared at Rav Kahn’s website, and appears here with permission.
Rav Ari Kahn, a member of Beit Hillel, is Director of Foreign Student Programs and a senior lecturer in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University, as well as a senior lecturer at MaTaN. He is a renowned speaker and popular author of articles on the weekly parasha and holidays, with a readership in the thousands, as well as an author of several books.
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