This week the two portions that complete Sefer VaYikra, are read: Parsha Behar and Parsha Bechukotai. They offer a simple premise: obey God’s laws and be blessed, disobey His commandments and be cursed.
Parsha Behar contains a number of teachings including one that details the laws of the Shemmitah, roughly the sabbatical year. One of the injunctions bars the cultivation of crops. In every seventh year, a farmer was commanded to leave his lands fallow, a sabbatical year for agricultural lands. No hoeing, sowing or reaping could be performed in that one year, a heavy burden on the domestic food supply which needed be sufficient to feed the people in the seventh and in the year following. In order to make the observance less stressful, God promised the Israelites a bountiful harvest in the sixth year: “enough food for the three year period”. If that blessing did not occur, its observance would have presented the Israelites with a dilemma; keep the lands fallow and possibly suffer starvation, or, ignore the rule and face God’s wrath.
Parsha Bechukotai does not contain teachings or narrative. Rather, it lists the blessings that would follow loyalty to the word of God and contrawise, God’s curses which would plague the sinner. The rewards for fidelity are a broad appeal to man’s basic needs: food, family, security and fertility. The rebukes and reproofs and admonitions, often called the Tochacha, are described in exquisite detail; five themes, each speaking to seven separate sins that deserved seven different punishments.
The construction of the portion resembles the recounting of the Ten Plagues. There was an intensification of God’s anger followed by an escalating cascade of turmoil and destruction. The literary genre of the Tochacha is that of an angry prophet and indeed, an easy argument can be made, that the content itself is a prophecy that has been fulfilled, time again and again. One example of the powerful language used to convey a very ugly, and for some, a much too real angry Fate: “And ye shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall devour you. Because of their iniquity, your remnants will disintegrate in the lands of their foes”. The descendants of these Children of Israel would be dispersed amongst the nations of the world, where they would gradually diminish in size until they collapse from within, to be absorbed into alien cultures.
The Tochacha represents a complex theological challenge. Simply, if Israel strayed they would suffer and since large swaths of Jewish existence in the last two and one half centuries abound with suffering and tragedy, the simple conclusion is that the people has brought this dire fate upon themselves – meaning, as the Ramban concluded, that there was a correlation between Israel’s fortunes in history at large and its obedience to God’s commandments. For example, the Israelites’ failure to observe Shemmitah brought about the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B. C.E. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. is blamed on senseless intra-Jewish animosity; the unparalleled might of the Roman Army barely merits consideration.
The theological implications of such a viewpoint are confounding, but nevertheless the paradigm presented by the model has been used time and again to explain disasters as diverse in time as the Rhineland Massacres, Spanish Expulsions, the Chielminicki Massacres and, lamentably, and which some consider obscenely, even the Holocaust.
Unfortunately it’s a viewpoint which closely resembles the traditional Christian view that the Jews had sinned –and that as a result of their iniquity and perfidy they should live lives of humility and virtual servitude, at the mercy of the local authorities. The dynamics were such that the warnings given in Parsha Bechukotai became, as it were, a self fulfilling prophecy.