Parshat Behukotai 5778 (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

This Shabbat, we will conclude the reading of the third book of the Torah – the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) – and the process by which the commandments were given at Mount Sinai. One of the peak moments is the “chapter of rebuke”, in which God tells the people what will happen if they follow the correct path, and what they should expect if, Heaven forbid, they deviate from that path.

This chapter is traditionally read in an undertone because the curses it contains are so terrible that we want to avoid tempting fate. Yet if we examine the encouraging promises in the chapter, we discover something curious.

The Torah promises that the reward for following the path of the righteous will primarily take the form of economic well-being. A second stage of rewards involves matters of peace and security, military victories, and so forth. A third stage, which should be the icing on the cake, is, instead: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people”.

Somewhat of a disappointment, no? We were expecting something grand, and in the end, all we get is God as our God? After all, the fact that we name God as our God is part of our good deeds, not a prize.

Imagine a father who wants to encourage his son to study math or physics diligently and regularly, promising him a prize if he does so. What prizes would his son imagine? A state-of-the-art cell phone? Perhaps an amazing trip? At long last, after acing his exams, the father reveals the prize he had in mind: “Your prize is that I am your father, and you will be my son.” I do not know too many kids who would be so thrilled with such a prize. So, what’s the story here?

In fact, in answering this question, we find that Parshat Bechukotai uncovers one of the Torah’s greatest mysteries. Many of our sages wondered why the Torah makes no mention of the existence of another world that we enter after death. The Torah mentions only temporal rewards and punishments for our deeds, such as an abundance of physical resources, or, conversely, punishments such as diseases or droughts. Not a word about either the World to Come and “Gan Eden” or Gehinnom (“Hell”).

Our parsha gives us a glimpse at one type of answer by presenting a model of the most sublime type of blessing. A dimension exists beyond economic abundance or individual / national security in the physical sense: the sense of belonging and meaning we feel. Thus writes Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, the renowned 16th century Italian sage: “I will be a special God to you; you will have no god or leader other than me.”

In other words, God promises us a personal and almost intimate connection with Him. Being our God is not presented as a commandment, but rather as a promise that He will embrace us and be in direct contact with us. That is exactly what the World to Come is – a direct connection with God, without any messengers or conduits.

If we revisit the story of the father and the son, we now understand that the father will be there to support his son through thick and thin. The father will never place him in the care of others or aloofly watch him fend for himself. Instead, he will stand beside him and maintain a close and warm relationship with him. Not every child would want such a thing, or prefer it over an iPhone or candy, but as we mature, we begin to understand how important that relationship with our father is. Would that the father keep his promise and always be there for his child!

Our greatest frustration in life is when we feel alone, at the mercy of stronger outside forces that seem to run our lives. This is something experienced by hermits or even those who have endured some kind of crisis and become engulfed in a sea of solitude. Interestingly, in describing the negative consequences of straying off the path, the Torah states that eventually, we will grow weary of God and His laws. In contrast, God promises: “Despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them…” [Lev. 26:44].

A father always longs for his son to return to him, regardless of how much his son has rebelled against the education he received from his father, or how much he has forgotten his father’s limitless benevolence. A father is always a father. Among the curses in this parsha, we find: “I will make the Land desolate, so that it will become desolate [also] of your enemies who live in it” [ibid., v. 32].

Even when the Jewish People are in exile, our enemies will not succeed in settling in the Land of Israel. Our rabbis teach us that a blessing is concealed within this curse – the blessing that ensures that even when God is furious with us and keeps us in exile, our land will remain loyal to its people and not give of its fruits to other nations.

Our generation merited to witness an incredible miracle: our brethren are being gathered to the Land of Israel, with a united Jerusalem at its heart. The land gives us its harvest, and our fields produce fruit for us. Our Father is embracing us with open arms. All we have to do now is extend our own arms in return.

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