Behukkotai:rebukes that remind us we must work together

Sidra Behukotai ends the book of Leviticus, and while frequently read in conjunction with sidra Behar, it differs from it substantially in the tone of the narrative. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant with God and follow the mitzvot that are the conditions of that covenant, and ends  with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows. But the centre of this short sidra is the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and our obligation to do mitzvot.

One particular verse stands out for me as being emblematic of the tochecha: In Leviticus 26:23-24 we read:

“Ve’im b’eileh lo tivasru li, v’halachtem imi keri, v’halachti af ani imachem b’keri,v’hikeiti etchem gam ani sheva al chatoteichem.” (And if after these [punishments] you are not disciplined/corrected but [instead] will walk ‘keri’ with me, then I will walk, even I, with you in ‘keri’, and I will smite you, yes me, seven times for your sins”)

This word, which is found right at the heart of this narrative of rebuke, appears nowhere else in Torah in this grammatical form, yet in this text we find it repeated seven times within twenty sentences (vv 21,23,24,27,28,40,41) forcing us to notice and explore it. Our behaviour clearly b’keri has terrible consequences. And yet it is not clear what the writer means by it.

Many classical commentators follow Rashi and Maimonides and understand the root of the word to be k.r.h – meaning something that happens by casual chance or by accident (mikreh), though it may also be translated as being in opposition or contrary, or indeed it may come from the root k.r.r meaning to be cold.  But we also know that when used in bible, the apparent casual chance of the text is not ever quite what it seems to be on the surface, but instead is a coded phrase used to let us know that something of significance is about to happen.  So it is that Ruth meets Boaz the language of k.r.h is used to alert us to the significance of her choosing his field to glean in.   There is something curious about a phrase used to describe a chance that is not exactly chance, a casual encounter of enormous significance, but that is how the word keri is used, and to find it so definitely  emphasised in the text of the tochecha means we need to look closely at just what God means when God says “If you walk ‘keri’ with me, then most definitely I will walk ‘keri’ with you.

The three most common teachings about this are: the classical idea expressed by Rashi and Maimonides that there is a lack of interest or intention in walking God’s way – a sort of going through the motions without really caring or understanding or being principled in doing God’s will; The extension of this mechanistic approach of indifference which is developed by R.Samson Raphael Hirsch of modern orthodoxy, and which overlays on the classical understanding the idea that when we do God’s will b’keri it is essentially not simply a casual coincidence but a phenomenon that happens when our will and God’s will coincide so that while it feels we are doing God’s will with intention, in reality we are following our own self-interest and priding ourselves on acting with more righteousness than should be claimed; and thirdly the position of the founder of the ethical mussar movement R.Israel Salanter who layers in the idea of coldness to the behaviour to suggest that when we walk with God b’keri it is that we follow God’s commandments not only mechanistically but also without any warmth or passion for it – there is no possibility of our doing the mitzvot changing us or developing our relationship with the creator.

I like this idea that if we follow God’s commandments to the letter, but without any passion – without committing ourselves and our hopes and fears – that this is viewed by God as b’keri: casual indifferent and cold religion. It bespeaks irrelevance – the acting out of what is required but in no way coming from the commitment of the self.  It is act but not attitude. How do we bring God closer into the world if we do not ourselves make the effort to make the world a better place? How do we bring ourselves closer to God if we pay attention more to how things look than how things are?

The warning in the tochecha, of all the things that will go wrong if we act b’keri – is so powerful an imperative that we are told that not only will God mirror our indifference, God will go further and punish us seven fold – the designation of maximalist or absolute punishment, the other end of the spectrum from casual/chance/indifferent.  If anything is designed to catch our attention, it must be the severity of this response.

And after it all, the horror story painted so dramatically of famine and war and terror and starvation and expulsion and yearning and pain – there comes this: “Then will I 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 yet for all that, 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.”

God promises to remember – to actively recall the relationship of Covenant between God and the Jewish people which will never be broken no matter how badly behaved we might be. And God compounds this by naming the Avot, the three founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and unusually lists them in reverse order, the only time this is found in bible.

This bringing in of the patriarchs leads to the concept of zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, which we can call upon to weight our case before the heavenly court. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) explicates this, asking  “Why are the Avot listed backwards? To say: If the acts of Jacob are not worthy, then the acts of Isaac are worthy, and if the acts of Isaac are not worthy, then the acts of Abraham are worthy. The acts of each one is sufficiently worthy that the world can be saved for his sake.”

Rashi mitigates this a little, saying Why are they listed backwards? As if to say: Jacob, the youngest, is worthy of that; and if he is not worthy, behold, Isaac is with him, and if he is not worthy, behold, Abraham is with him and he is worthy.”

It is, I think, a little dig or reminder to the Jews of modernity – the greatest zechut/merit is that of Abraham, and as time goes on the merit is by its nature in decline. So we need to add the merit of our ancestors rather than assume any one is sufficient by itself. We, so much further away from biblical times are expected to have less merit than the founding patriarchs – so how much more do we need each other to fulfil our task. If we just do our tasks with indifference, or follow God’s will where it coincides with our self-interest, or do not attempt our holy task with all the passion and awareness we could bring to it, then we will fail. And to do our holy task well enough we must do it together, in community, with shared and common interest. We need not only the combined merit of our ancestors in tough times, we need the combined merit of our fellow human beings. Only in this way, by working together to make the world a better and holier place, by rebuking each other where necessary, by paying attention to what we do and its effect on others – only in this way will we create the blessing we yearn for.

Ki Tavo: Moses’ words echo today – what of us will echo in the future?

Ki Tavo includes the famously difficult passage known as the tochecha, the red lines of society’s expectations laid down mainly in the form of the cursing of the one who disobeys, but there is a great deal more in this speech which is part of the series given by an increasingly anxious Moses as he approaches his death. The whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is given life by Moses’ desperate wish to help the Israelite people continue on their journey with God after he is no longer around to help them. So here we have the ritual of sacrificing the first harvested fruits of the land to God carefully spelled out – the fruits should be put in a basket, taken to a specific place of worship, given to the priest of the time – and one of the earliest bits of liturgical speech is also given here – the people must say to the priest “I profess this day to the Eternal­­­­­­­­­ your God that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us”. The priest will take the basket and place it at the altar, and then the speech is to continue: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great mighty and populous. And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondages. And we cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And the Eternal God brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness and with signs and with wonders, and God brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which you O God have given me”.

The whole script is prescribed – and after it what shall happen – you will then worship God, you will rejoice in all the good that God has given to you, and so on.

The text is familiar to even the most distanced of Jews – it is the basis for the text of the Haggadah that we read at Pesach. Word for word Moses’ script is recited when we remember the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder each year. The actual figure of Moses may never have been allowed into the Haggadah in case people should begin to believe that it was his leadership rather than God’s that took us on our journey into peoplehood and covenant, but that becomes irrelevant when we realise that something far more important has been imported untouched by the editorial process of the book – the direct prayer of Moses is embedded in the text as if in amber. The rabbinic statement that a scholar does not ever die fully if his teachings are remembered – phrased evocatively as “his lips move in the grave when his words are recounted” – means that Moses’ teaching really has been passed down the generations and his humanity and presence really do remain among us.

As we move towards the Yamim Noraim we are prompted to remember those who taught us our religious and ethical values, and it is a custom in this period to visit the graves of those family members and teachers who have died. We are going to be facing our own ‘day of judgement’ to spend at least one day looking at our lives from the perspective of our own death as we abstain from food and drink and the normal everyday activities we do every other day of the year. We weigh up our actions in the past year and maybe further; consider who we have been, what lessons can be inferred from how we have lived our lives. So the question we have to ask of ourselves now is – how have we done? How are our actions an expression of our values? Will we have been a strong link in a chain or an irrelevant and vestigial structure appended to the community without much adding to it?

Every year our liturgical calendar gives us time to consider whether our lives are going in a direction we can be proud of, whether our lived lives are an valuable addition to the world we care about or not. So will the text of our lives be read in the generations to come or as we pass into eternity will we also be forgotten, no stories remembered with warmth and love, no wisdom or behaviour of ours held close to those still in the world? Our legacy does not have to be high profile or high achieving. But how we lived our lives should matter.

vati grave

illustration is the grave of Walter Rothschild in Jewish Cemetery Lausanne

Behukkotai: redemption requires ongoing action.

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.