Parshat Bechukotai: The Covenant Between Israel and God
By Rabbi Shlomo Brown, Executive Director of Midreshet Lindenbaum
Which covenant is this week’s Torah portion alluding to? Why does the land of Israel pledge allegiance to the Jewish people, even when they don’t observe God’s commandments or adhere to this covenant?
This week’s portion centers on a scathing reproach. A reproach that is intrinsically tied to the covenant between the Jewish people and God.
The word “covenant” is repeated eight times. In seven of those instances, the “covenant” refers to the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people: “I will maintain My covenant with you”, “…and you break My covenant”, “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob”, “I will remember also My covenant with Isaac”, “and also My covenant with Abraham”, ” I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them”, and “I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients.” In one instance, however, the connotation is similar yet not identical: “I will bring a sword against you to wreak vengeance for the covenant.”
The Torah does not explicitly state what it means by a “covenant,” assuming that the meaning is obvious. The mention of this covenant recurs throughout the reproach. If Bnei Yisrael follow the laws of the Torah and observe its commandments, God will maintain His covenant with them, but if the People of Israel violate the covenant with God, He will bring a sword against them to wreak vengeance for the covenant. This is what is referred to as mida keneged mida – measure for measure. Yet even then, Hashem will not forget His covenant, and even if the Children of Israel violate this covenant, He will not. He will invariably return them to the land of Israel.
The first covenant that Hashem made was the “Covenant of the Rainbow.” It was a covenant between God and all of humanity: “‘That’, God said to Noah, ‘shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.’”
Hashem made His covenant with our forefather Abraham at the “Covenant Between the Pieces”: “On that day Hashem made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land.” Hashem promises Abraham’s progeny the land of Israel.
Yet something seems missing from this covenant. At the “Covenant of the Pieces”, there were two parties, and each party undertook to fulfill its part of the deal. The Torah completes what it had left out of that covenant in this portion, when discussing the covenant of circumcision:
“I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their G0d. G0d further said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant.'” (Genesis, chapter 17)
Hashem promises to uphold His side of the covenant, i.e. that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Israel, and in exchange, the Children of Israel would be required to keep their side of the covenant; namely, the observance of circumcision. As the Seforno explained in the Katzir Haomer: “Just as [the verse states]: ‘as for Me, this is My covenant with you’ (verse 4), keep my covenant, for if not, the covenant will not be upheld.”
Anyone of sound mind can appreciate that circumcision is a commandment that represents the People of Israel’s side of the covenant, but the Jewish people’s commitment isn’t limited to merely observing circumcision. It has committed to observing all of the commitments.
Hashem reasserts the covenant he had made with Abraham by making this covenant with the Jewish people in the Sinai desert, and in the plains of Moab. In the Sinai desert:
“Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of Hashem and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that Hashem has commanded we will do!” (Verse 3)…
“Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that Hashem has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Verse 7)…
“Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that Hashem now makes with you concerning all these commands.” (Verse 8)…
In the plains of Moab:
“These are the terms of the covenant which Hashem commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.” (Verse 69)
When the Jewish people uphold their share of the covenant, they are found deserving and inherit the land of Israel, while when they violate that covenant, the land of Israel itself punishes them:
“I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper… Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.”
After the people of Israel are exiled from their land, the land observes its sabbaths, the sabbaths that the Jewish people had failed to observe when they resided in that land:
“Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.” (Leviticus 35: 34-35)
It is important to note that when the land penalizes the people of Israel, it maintains its loyalty to the Jewish people, and does not accept any other nation in their stead. “I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it.” Rashi interprets this verse as follows: “This was a kindly measure for Israel that the enemies would find no satisfaction in their (the Israelites’) land and so it would become desolate of its inhabitants…” This “loyalty” that the land of Israel keeps toward the Jewish people is ingrained into the character and unique nature of the first covenant Hashem made with our forefather Abraham, when, at first, Hashem had promised the land to the descendants without demanding “something in exchange.” The Jewish people’s part in the covenant is only mentioned in the case of circumcision. This is to teach us that the land of Israel is tied to the people of Israel, even when the Jewish people are not connected to their land. In light of this, we understand that Hashem will remember His covenant:
“Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land”
… and the Jewish people shall return to their land.
And return they have.