Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – And I shall provide peace in the land and you shall lie down at night without fear.” (Leviticus 26:6)
This Torah portion comes at the end of The Book of Leviticus, called by our Sages “the Torah of the Kohen-Priests” – the religious leadership of Israel whose task it was to minister in the Holy Temple and to teach Torah to the nation. A public remnant of their priestly function exists to this very day, when the Kohanim bestow the priestly benediction upon the congregation during the repetition of the Amidah, every morning in Israel, and during the major Festivals in the diaspora.
The problem with this priestly benediction, however, is the concluding words of the blessing recited by the Kohanim before intoning the benediction: “Blessed art thou Oh Lord our God King of the Universe who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His nation Israel with love.”
What is the significance of these words, “with love”? And if the Kohanim do not feel the emotion of love towards the congregation, does that invalidate their benediction?
Where do we find any kind of parallel for the necessity of an emotion of love as prerequisite for a blessing?
I believe we will discover the answer to our question, as well as the proper interpretation of the priestly benediction, in the process of an investigation into the meaning of the difficult text in the beginning of our Torah portion.
The reading of Behukotai begins:
“If you will follow my decrees and observe my commandments…, then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce… You will eat your bread to satiety and you will dwell securely in your land. I shall provide peace (shalom) in the land and you shall lie down at night without fear… A sword will not cross your land. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall before you by the sword. Five of you will pursue a hundred and hundred of you will pursue ten thousand and your enemies will fall before you by the sword…” (Leviticus 26:1-8)
How can I possibly understand this text? On the one hand, the Bible guarantees that if we as an entire nation will follow the Biblical commandments in the land of Israel, the soil will provide you with the requisite nourishment and there will be peace – shalom – in the land; no sword will cross the land. But then, on the other hand, in the very next verse, the Bible tells us that we will pursue our enemies with the sword and a hundred of our men will slay a thousand of the enemy. Is this a picture of shalom, of peace? Even if we are defeating our enemy by the sword, this does not mean that we have no casualties at all! This hardly suggests a cessation of the sword altogether!? In this context, what did the Bible mean in its earlier verse, “And I shall provide peace – shalom – in the land” (Leviticus 26:6)?
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra provides the answer with his one-word commentary on the word shalom, peace: benechem, “amongst yourselves”.
The Bible is telling us that if we follow the commandments and live in peace and harmony amongst ourselves in Israel; if there be no swords of internecine civil wars within the nation, then we will be able to soundly defeat any enemy who might rise up from without to destroy us. Shalom means internal peace, the love of our Israelite siblings – which can only come after we vanquish our enemies roundabout!
This is a critical message – especially during this time of the year. The Sages of the Talmud teach us that we must waive weddings, haircuts and group festivities from Passover until Lag B’omer because 24,0000 disciples of Rabbi Akiba died during this period; the Geonim explain that these disciples were killed during the abortive Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome. Their fatal flaw was their lack of respect for each other, because of which that generation was not worthy of the redemption Bar Kochba had been supposed to bring about.
The lesson is the same: only if we Jews are at peace with each other internally will we be able to overcome our external enemies who threaten to destroy us.
And even more to the point, our Biblical portion of Behukotai teaches that the primary meaning of the word shalom is peace within Israel; it is as if the Torah is teaching that our problems with the Palestinians are far more simple to work out than our problems with each other, within the family of Israel!
Now I believe we can resolve our initial query. The priestly benediction requests that “God bless you and keep you; God cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; God lift up His face towards you and grant you peace.” The culmination of the benediction is shalom, peace. The Kohanim introduce the benediction by defining its most important feature: “God has commanded us to bless His nation Israel with love” – not that the Kohanim must feel love when they bless, but that their blessing for Israel is love; that all Jews feel love for one another. Our nation must achieve the internal peace and brotherly love which will make Israel invincible vis a vis their enemies. This is our greatest challenge!