The book of Vayikra culminates with the “blessings and the curses,” the rewards that are to be the consequence of keeping the laws and commandments, and the punishments that will result from for breaking them. This section, coming as it does at the end of the book of Vayikra, is clearly intended as a coda for what has preceded it, it is the penalty clause of the brit at Mount Sinai.
Thus, parshat Behar opens with the framing of Mount Sinai (Vayikra 25:1). And parshat Bechukotai closes with the same framing (Vayikra 26:46; 27:34).
As a closing to the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, Bechukotai can be seen as the final clause of the brit. First, there are the terms of the contact, the responsibilities of one party to the other. These terms are spelled out clearly in the book of Shemot: the Ten Commandments and all the laws that follow in Mishpatim. All the do’s and don’ts, the mitzvot and the laws, are the specific terms of the covenant, the way in which the brit and the relationship is translated in practical, day-to-day terms. And after the terms of the contact comes the penalty clause, comes the blessings and, more significantly, the curses. Bechukotai, then, is the natural culmination of the brit at Sinai.
But if it is such a natural culmination, why is it only coming at the end of the Book of Vayikra? Why did it not close the parsha of Mishpatim?
The best explanation of this is that a profound rupture occurred between the end of Parshat Mishpatim and the book of Vayikra. That rupture was the sin of the Golden Calf. Until that sin, the Torah could hope that the covenant in itself would suffice. Not every contract needs a penalty clause. While violating the terms of a contract will – or can – have its consequences, they need not be spelled out in the contract itself. God could have reasonably hoped that the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, of those who first had this brit with God, would be committed to the brit for its own sake. God could have reasonably hoped that a people whom God had just been freed from bondage would understand what it means to be in a covenant with God. But, of course, the people failed God, and at the first opportunity violated the covenant, and compromised and challenged the very relationship.
God realizes that this is a stiff-necked people. God (as it were) realizes that this is a people that need the positive and negative reinforcement of the blessings and the curses, that need to penalty clause, in order to stay committed to the terms of the contract. But the shift in the relationship is more profound than that. Because what happens after the Golden Calf is that the relationship learns to survive even times of violation and profound strain. As those of us who are parents know well, we can wish that our children would do what is right because it is right, but human nature being what it is, punishments (however labeled) are a necessary form of parenting. And they are just that – a form of parenting – an expression of love and concern, an expression of commitment to the relationship. If we did not care, we would not punish. And if the relationship could not survive disobedience and misbehavior, if a parent would (God forbid) walk away from a troublesome child, then punishment would be unnecessary.
God’s initial high expectations of us also meant that when we failed God, God was ready to give up on us. God was prepared to drop us and to walk away from the relationship: “And now, leave me, and My anger will kindle against them and I will destroy them, and I will make you – Moshe – into a great nation” (Shemot 32:10). Even when God relents, and agrees to not destroy the people, and to stay in the relationship, God does not want to get too close. God is looking for a long-distance relationship: “And I will send an angel before you… for I cannot go up in your midst, because you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way” (Shemot 33:3). It is only after Moshe’s importuning that God again agrees to resume the relationship as before: “And God said, my Presence will go [among you] and I will give you rest.” (Shemot 33:14). God renews the covenant (Shemot 34:11-26) and appends to it the penalty clause the is parshat Bechukotai.
The renewal of the covenant, the reaffirmation of the relationship, is the key turning point. It is at this moment that God declares that God will not give up on the relationship, that God will keep God’s Presence among us even when we violate the covenant. God will not walk out on us. But then how to deal with our imperfect humanity? How to deal with the fact that we will fail God, that we will not always live up to the covenant? The answer is the blessings and the curses. He will deal with our misbehavior by parenting us when necessary. God accepts that we are less than perfect, accounts for it, gives us positive and negative reinforcement, and is prepared to deal with our transgressions and failures, and stay committed to the relationship all at the same time.
Why, then, the gap between the reaffirmation of the covenant and our parsha? How does the entire book of Vayikra factor into this structure? The answer is that if one, as a parent, really cares then it is not all about rewards and punishments. Good parenting also means good education, and it means setting up systems that are reinforcing and the cultivate growth and success. The entire book of Vayikra is devoted to setting up just such systems. It is devoted to setting up a system of kedusha, holiness, in the Temple and, as we saw last week, a parallel and reinforcing system of kedusha in the camp. It is these systems of kedusha that will reorient our lives and our society so that we will be focused on God, and be able to truly abide by the covenant.
However, sometimes even these very systems are themselves threatened. But God, committed to the relationship, has given us ways to protect and, if necessary, restore these systems. When the sins of the nation threaten the sanctity of the Temple, we are given the rites of Yom Kippur to cleanse the Temple from its impurity. God has made this possible, because, after the Golden Calf, God has agreed that the Temple will “dwell amongst them, [even] together with their impurity.” (Vayikra 16:16). The Temple can survive the tumah of the nation.
In contrast, when the kedusha of the camp is threatened, the situation is much more severe. Here we are no longer talking about ritual sins and ritual tumah, here we are talking about true corruption of society, a profound leaving of God and of God’s ways. And this becomes intolerable when what is threatened is the very system of kedusha, the Sabbatical year and its profound restructuring of society to be one with God at its center.
For this, no ritual, no Temple rites, can provide a solution. The punishments can hopefully serve their purpose and turn people back to the right path, but when they don’t the only solution is to remove the people from the place of kedusha. The solution is exile. The cleansing of the land, in contrast to that of the Temple, requires first removing the people from the land, and then allowing the land to “rest its Shabbats [Seventh Years]… which it did not rest when you were dwelling on it.” (Vayikra 26:34-35). Through the lessons of exile the people will hopefully learn the profound nature of their sin, and can hopefully return to the land, and once again attempt to live on it with full respect for the structures of kedusha that are central to the living and maintaining the brit.
Whenever the supporting systems of the brit, whenever the systems of kedusha, are trespassed whether it is the sanctity of the Temple or the Sabbatical years of the camp that is violated, the relationship will still survive. That is what, ever since the sin of the Golden Calf, has been God’s commitment to the Jewish People. God is with us through thick and thin. Even at times when we could no longer live on God’s land, when we failed to build a nation on the principles of kedusha, God remained – and remains – committed to us. “And even with all of this – when they are in the land of their enemies, I have not despised them or rejected them, to destroy them, to nullify my covenant with them, because I am the Lord their God.” We have come a long way from the sin of the Calf. Our relationship can survive moments of strain, even severe strain, and it will go on. And even when a drastic response is necessary, the relationship will survive, because the covenant is forever, because God will always remain our God, committed to a never-to-be-broken relationship with the Jewish People.