The sidra Bechukkotai ends the book of Leviticus, and concludes with the verse “These are the commandments which the Eternal commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mt Sinai”
A book which is primarily dealing with the ritual system overseen by the hereditary priesthood, a book whose rabbinic name is Sefer Cohanim (The Book of the Priests), is seen by itself as holding a much wider remit, putting into context the sacrificial cult of priest and altar, clarifying the notion that the relationship between God and Israel is available to each and every person, and is framed into the construct of covenant.
At the beginning of the sidra we are told of the great blessing which will be given to the people if they observe the Torah, 11 verses detailing the blessings of economic stability, peace and prosperity, and finally God’s presence among the people. This is followed by the tochecha – the admonition and curse, with 30 verses which warn of the destruction of the land, the destruction of the nation and their exile, for the sin of violating the commandments.
This set of warnings, which here are told to Moses by God in the desert, are repeated in an even more concise and forceful manner by Moses just before his death forty years hence.
When you study these two versions of the warnings, and compare then with other biblical texts warning about destruction and exile, you find a curious and certainly deliberate absence. Usually the warnings which are found in bible end with the promise of Teshuvah – that God will restore us from our captivity as soon as we return to God. The certainty of ultimate redemption is spelled out for the reader. If we actively seek God then God will redeem us. But the rebuke in this sidra, like its parallel text in Deuteronomy, does not state that redemption will surely come. Instead , at the end of chapter 26 of Leviticus (arguably the original end of the whole Torah), after the warnings of destruction and exile, we are told “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember,; and I will remember the land” and God goes on to say “When they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal”(26:42,44-5)
These verses, which resonate in this text, are ones which countless generations of Jews have held close. They are a huge comfort to many generations, yet they do not talk of redemption or of return to the Land. What they tell us is that God continues to remember the covenant – but they don’t tell us what that means. The covenant is remembered by God and so we are not lost however dark our days may be. The fact that the patriarchs are named in reverse order is used as the proof text for the tradition of Zechut Avot – the merits of our ancestors which we can call upon in difficult times. If our own merits do not help us than we enlist those of Jacob. If his don’t do the trick then we enlist the merits of Isaac and finally we can call on the merits of Abraham, who, as the first person to make a covenant with God will surely come to our aid.
The tradition of Zechut Avot – that the merits of our ancestors will be added to our own at the time of judgement, and so will enable us to survive, is debated at length in the rabbinic literature and there are those who claim it continues to operate, and those who claim that the merit has been exhausted – our own sins by now far outweigh any ancestral good deeds. But all the commentators agree that whatever the status of Zechut Avot, the covenant made with our ancestors remains in force, it is the covenant which effectively ensures our continuing existence and our continuing meaning.
Within the bible there are two types of covenant – there is the Noachide Covenant when God promises that the natural order will not change, a promise made by God which does not require any action or even response from people. Then there is the covenant as understood by Abraham and his descendants, the covenant that is described by God who does not forget. This is a covenant of mutuality – mutual obligation, mutual understanding, mutual responsibility. “I will be your God and you shall be My people” – there is an interdependence here, a way of defining and identifying through the other party in their relationship. This covenant is still in force even at the end of the tochecha – it remains in force because God remembers it. But there is no promise of redemption because redemption is not an automatic consequence of God remembering – we need the concept of mutuality – whether the covenant can be executed will depend not only on God remembering but on US remembering. For the people to find redemption they must act properly, responsibly, within the terms and conditions of the covenant.
In the midrash we are told that:
“Three things were given to Israel conditionally – the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the Kingship of the House of David. And two things were given unconditionally – The Torah and the hereditary priesthood”
What is not mentioned is redemption – we have no automatic right to such a state of being, no magic formula of faith in God which will ensure that we are saved. Judaism teaches us, (and it bases its teaching from within the two passages of the tochecha), that we are in a position of covenant with God, that we have all the rights and obligations and responsibilities that such a relationship entails, and that the purpose of such contract is not that we individually save our souls through our belief, but that we work to save the world through our actions which themselves are rooted in the contract/covenant relationship we have accepted with God.
That contract can never be broken, whatever we do or don’t do, wherever we are, and however we view ourselves. Because God remembers the covenant, and God remembers the land. And God waits for us too to remember, and having remembered, to act.