2003The Torah portion of Bechukotai includes two of the most compelling yet unnerving principles of biblical law: The first is free will. The other is reward and punishment. This portion opens with God's words to the Israelites: "If you follow my commandments (bechukotai)." If the Israelites follow God's ways, they will be rewarded with health, wealth and prosperity. If not, they will encounter anguish, destruction, poverty and starvation.
Rewards, Punishments and Free Will - Oh My!
Leviticus 26:3-5, 14-18
3. If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,
4. I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and trees of their field their fruit.
5.Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land...
14. But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments,
15. if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant,
16. I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you - consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for you enemies shall eat it.
17. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.
18. And if you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins. (Translation: JPS Torah Commentary, Etz Hayim)
Your Torah Navigator I
1. What are the ethical lessons we may learn from this passage?
2. Do you agree that suffering can come from failing to observe the laws of Torah?
Rashi's commentary on 26: 15
...And you break My covenant: [This means] denying the great principle of the existence of God. - Thus you have here seven sins the first of which brings the second in its train and so on to the seventh. And these are: he has not studied and therefore has not practiced the commandments: consequently he scorns others who do practice them, hates the Sages, prevents others from practicing, denies the Divine origin of the commandments, and finally denies the existence of God. (Translation: Chumash with Rashi's Commentary ed. Silberman).
Your Rashi Navigator
1. How does Rashi perceive the gravity of not following God's commandments?
2. Do you agree with Rashi's logic, does one's failure to observe parts of God's laws ultimately lead to a denial of God's existence?
41. When I, in turn have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity.
42. Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will also remember My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.
Your Torah Navigator II
1. What criteria are required for God to remember the Covenant with Jacob and what does it mean that God will remember the Covenant?
2. What does it mean that God will remember the land?
The concept of being punished for not faithfully observing God's commandments can be troubling. History has taught us that righteous individuals often suffer for no humanly conceivable reason. The thirty-verse passage, which outlines the punishments to be meted out for disobedience is known as the Tochecha, or rebuke. Even today, when read aloud in synagogues it is customary to read the tochecha quickly and in an undertone indicating the inherently uncomfortable nature of this passage. Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, in his commentary on Leviticus (A Modern Torah Commentary. UAHC Press) suggests that while the tochecha is frightening, Bechukotai as a whole is actually a source of comfort to the modern reader. The blessings and curses are brought on by choices, and the Torah always holds open a "glimmering of hope" of new opportunities for reward and happiness. We may suffer the consequences of our choices, but we are never completely doomed by them.
While the world can seem arbitrary and overwhelming at times, Bechukotai reminds us that with free will we do have a measure of control over our destiny. Even if we cannot understand the greater mystery of the world in general, we understand that the consequences of our conduct are rarely limited to ourselves, and therefore we can try to choose wisely and responsibly. As Bamberger writes, "The question, 'Why did God let Hitler do what he did?' cannot be separated from the question, 'Why did God let Pasteur do what he did."
If we follow the commandments of Torah, the greatest of which include pursuing justice and treating one another as we would like to be treated, we improve the lot of society as a whole. No matter the failings of those who've come before us or ourselves, when we make the decision to live justly and follow God's intention, we have the power to do our share to leave the world a bit better than we found it.
Prepared by Rabbi Shena Potter, assistant director, University of Michigan Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Bechukotai at MyJewishLearning.com.