We finish our reading of Vayikra with the “blessings and the curses”: the rewards for keeping the laws and commandments and the punishments for breaking them. This section, coming as it does at the end of Vayikra, is clearly intended as a coda to what preceded it. Namely, it is the penalty clause of the brit at Mount Sinai. Thus, Bechukotai opens and closes with the framing of Mount Sinai (Vayikra, 25:1, 26:46, 27:34).
Contracts generally begin with the terms of the agreement, the responsibilities of one party to the other. These were spelled out clearly in Shemot with the Ten Commandments and all the laws in Mishpatim. The mitzvot and the laws, all the “dos and don’ts,” are the way in which the relationship is translated in practical, day-to-day terms. After the terms of the contract are laid out, a penalty clause often follows. This is the blessings and, more significantly, the curses that we find in Bechukotai. This, then, is the natural culmination of the brit at Sinai. But if this is so, why does this only come at the end of Vayikra? Why did it not close Parashat Mishpatim?
The best explanation is that a profound rupture occurred between Parshat Mishpatim and Sefer Vayikra: the Sin of the Golden Calf. Until that sin, the Torah could hope that the covenant itself would suffice; not every contract needs a penalty clause. While violating the terms of a contract will have its consequences, these need not be spelled out in the actual agreement. God could have reasonably hoped that the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, 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 freed from bondage would understand the meaning of their covenant. But, as we know, the people failed God, violating the covenant at the first opportunity and compromising the very relationship.
God realizes that this is a stiff-necked people. God, as it were, realizes that this is a people that needs the positive and negative reinforcement of the blessings and the curses, a penalty clause to keep them committed to the terms of the contract. But the shift in the relationship is more profound than that. It is clear that, after the Golden Calf, the relationship can survive even times of violation and profound strain. As parents know well, we can wish that our children will do what is right because it is right, but human nature being what it is, punishment (however labeled) is a necessary form of parenting. And punishment is just that: a form of parenting. It is an expression of love and concern, 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 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, agreeing not to 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” (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” (33:14). God renews the covenant in Shemot (34:11-26), but God only appends the penalty clause in Parashat Bechukotai.
The renewal of the covenant, the reaffirming of the relationship, is the turning point. This is the 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 how is our imperfect humanity-the fact that we will fail God, that we will not always live up to the agreement-dealt with in the renewed covenant? Through the blessings and curses. God will deal with our misbehavior by parenting us when we need it. God accepts that we are less than perfect. God accounts for this by giving us positive and negative reinforcement, and God is prepared to deal with our transgressions and failures and to remain committed to the relationship.
Why, then, the gap between the reaffirmation of the covenant and Bechukotai? How does the entirety of Sefer Vayikra factor into this structure? The answer lies in the fact that good, caring parenting is about more than rewards and punishments. Good parenting also means providing a good education, and it means setting up systems to reinforce learning and to cultivate growth and success. Vayikra is devoted to setting up these systems: the system of kedusha, holiness, in the Temple and, as we saw last week, the parallel and reinforcing system of kedusha in the camp. These are designed to reorient our lives and our society so that we will be focused on God, allowing us to truly abide by the covenant.
Sometimes, however, even these systems are threatened. But God, committed to the relationship, has given us ways to protect and, if necessary, restore them. When the sins of the nation threatened the sanctity of the Temple, God gave us the rites of Yom Kippur to cleanse the Temple of its impurity. God made this possible when, after the Golden Calf, God 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, the situation is much more severe when the kedusha of the camp is threatened. 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 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 as 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 the people back to the right path, but when they fail to do so, 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 removing the people from the land and 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, allowing them to return to the land and once again attempt to live on it with full respect for the structures of kedusha, the systems central to living and maintaining the brit.
When the supporting systems of the brit are violated, whether in the sanctity of the Temple or the Sabbatical Years of the camp, the relationship will still survive. This has been God’s commitment to the Jewish people since the Sin of the Golden Calf. 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 God 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, and our relationship has survived moments of severe strain. And even though a drastic response may at times be necessary, it will survive because the covenant is forever, because God will always remain our God, committed to an unbreakable relationship with the Jewish people.