Parshat Bechukotai: Overcoming Coincidence; Embracing Destiny

Tamar Oderberg is an attorney at OTS’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot

%D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%A8 %D7%90%D7%95%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%A8%D7%92We are living through challenging times in Israel. Every morning for the past seven months, we have woken up with the anxiety of opening the “Cleared for Publication” notices informing us of the latest military casualties; the incessant sounds of sirens in the south and north; the number of wounded soldiers arriving at hospitals. Sometimes, it feels like we are all just keeping our heads above water, struggling not to drown, searching for something to hold onto, an iota of strength which will pull us through these troubled waters.

It is in these moments that I look back. Since Simchat Torah, we have celebrated Chanukah, commemorating the victory of the few over the many; observed Purim, celebrating the miracle of rescue from Haman’s evil plan to annihilate our people; and marked Passover, celebrating our liberation after 400 years of slavery.

We have commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, honoring the six million Jews murdered and the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people in their land amidst the ruins. We also observed Memorial Day, remembering the heavy price paid during the years of Israel’s independence. Yigal Allon, former commander of the Palmach and later a general in the IDF, once said, “When a people does not remember its past, it lives in a present of little substance and faces a future shrouded in fog.”  Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, quoting British historian John H. Plumb, noted that for Jews, “the past is more than a collection of stories”; it is “an integral part of destiny. It contains an interpretation of the future that is more certain, more absolute, and more comprehensive than any other form of prophecy.”

Yet, the thoughts persist. Why has this inferno been decreed upon us?

Examining this week’s Torah portion might offer some insight. The beginning of Parashat Bechukotai outlines what will happen if we follow God’s laws, and what will happen if we do not. In the section describing the curses, it is hard not to notice the repeated use of the word keri (“contrary” or “coincidental”) and the recurring phrase “to walk contrary with Me” in various forms:

“And if ye walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins.” (Vayikra 26: 21)

“And if in spite of these things ye will not be corrected unto Me, but will walk contrary unto Me.” (ibid. 23)

“Then will I also walk contrary unto you; and I will smite you, even I, seven times for your sins.” (ibid. 24)

“And if ye will not for all this hearken unto Me, but walk contrary unto Me.” (ibid. 27)

“Then I will walk contrary unto you in fury; and I also will chastise you seven times for your sins.” (ibid. 28)

“And they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me, and also that they have walked contrary unto Me.” (ibid. 40)

“I also will walk contrary unto them, and bring them into the land of their enemies; if then perchance their uncircumcised heart be humbled, and they then be paid the punishment of their iniquity.” (ibid. 41)

Some interpret the word “keri” as contrariness, while others, such as the Rambam, interpret it as coincidence or chance. “If you walk with Me in keri” suggests that if you live your life as if it is governed by random events, or interpret history as such, this will be your sin, and I, too, will deal with you in keri – leaving you to the whims of chance.

Our lives are not governed by chance. Our people have a destiny and a covenant, and we must not leave ourselves to random fate. Rabbi Sacks teaches us that being Jewish means believing that our personal lives and shared history have profound meaning. We are all part of a larger, significant narrative.

Rabbi Sacks uses the example of the Waze app, the Israeli navigation system acquired by Google in 2013. This sophisticated system can guide us on how to reach our destination, but it cannot tell us what our destination should be. We must determine that ourselves. Without a sense of purpose and direction, we are lost. If we do not know where we want to go, we will never reach our intended destination, no matter how fast technology enables us to travel.

The portion of Bechukotai contrasts a world of ‘coincidence’ with a world of law and meaning, presenting us with a crucial choice: between seeing life as a series of random, meaningless events, or viewing it as a calling, a purpose, a mission.

“And they shall stumble one upon another, as it were before the sword, when none pursueth; and ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies.”  (ibid. 37)

The above paints a stark reality in which we stumble upon each other without any external foe, followed by “…and ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies” – then the true adversary emerges. It’s a reality of profound distress, one that feels all too familiar and contemporary.

Yet, amidst this somber verse, Rashi offers a hidden solace: “All of Israel are responsible one for another.” If one has the capacity to weaken the other or cause him to fall, surely he also possesses the power to uplift and fortify. The Lubavitcher Rebbe illuminates this, reminding us that we’re not just physically bound but spiritually interconnected. Just as we’re susceptible to collective falls, we’re equally capable of collective rises.

In these challenging times, it’s imperative not to lose our way. Let’s not chalk it up to mere chance. Instead, let’s recall our aspirations, our destinies, and our roles in the grand narrative of the remarkable people known as the people of Israel. Though we may have faltered, we must now rise together.

The verses in our portion also echo with promise: “And I will grant peace in the land… and I will cause you to walk uprightly.” Here, Rashi teaches us that walking upright signifies standing tall. May it be Divine will that God’s blessings swiftly envelop our people, allowing us to dwell in our land in harmony, stand tall, and conduct ourselves with confidence and vigor.

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