Parashat Bechukotai

June 4, 2016 – 27 Iyyar 5776
Annual (Leviticus 26:3-27:34): Etz Hayim p. 747; Hertz p. 542
Triennial (Leviticus 27:1-34): Etz Hayim p. 753; Hertz p. 547
Haftarah (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14): Etz Hayim p. 763; Hertz p. 551

PDF Bechukotai 5776

Every Path Must Have an End: What is Ours?
Rabbi Juan Mejia (CY 02-04), rabbi in residence for Be’chol Lashon, lives in Oklahoma City with his “yeshiva sweetheart,” Rabbi Abby Jacobson [their chupa was in the CY], and their three children. His Torah (mostly in Spanish) can be found at: www.youtube.com/koltuvsefarad.

The word chok (“law”) with which our parashah (Bechukotai) begins has a complicated nuance for modern Jews. Since Saadya Gaon (Babylonia, 9th C), chukim have been identified with the commandments of the Torah which we follow even if we are unable to understand the rationale behind them. This is an idea that runs against the grain of the modern democratic ethos, in which individuals consent to laws and ideas precisely because they understand them. In a brilliant tour de force, Rabbi Ephraim of Luntschitz (Poland, 16th C.), in his commentary Keli Yakar, uproots this traditional meaning and connects it to the word that follows “im bechukotai telekhu “if you are to walk (literally) in my laws.” For the Keli Yakar the first step in the ladder to perfection is to train (and in the beginning maybe even force) our legs, literally, to take us to the house of study and to the performance of mitzvot. The repetition of good habits, proper routines and correct actions will develop a “second nature” in which mitzvot will become part of our regular behavior. This is something that we know to be true both in our physical development (muscle memory is a key to any successful physical training) and in our intellectual growth (neural pathways that are repeated grow stronger with time). The same can be said of our religious and spiritual life. As the masters of Musar have claimed throughout the ages: repeated virtuous action leads to virtuous habits and, eventually, to a virtuous life.

This revised vision of the meaning of chukim might be more palatable, but still not fully harmonious with modern sensitivities. We are suspicious of rote and repetition in the areas of the mind and of the spirit. Spontaneity and authenticity are the watchwords of the age. And yet, the same people who refuse rote in their religious lives will gladly work out for hours on an exercise machine or mindlessly repeat functions on a computer to succeed at work. The difference is that the fitness and professional worlds have succeeded in creating a more vivid picture of the end goal of these repetitive actions. We are surrounded by posters and stories of how you will look at the end; how these concrete and even uncomfortable actions play a role in getting that ripped body, that degree, or that corner office.

Parashat Bechukotai offers a vivid description of such an endgame for Biblical Israel: bountiful harvests, rain in its due season, and uncontested military dominion over our land. The Talmudic rabbis, living in an age of vulnerability and precariousness, shifted the endgame metaphysically to the world to come. In later centuries, Jewish sages continued trying to find compelling frameworks for halacha that transcend it but do not do without it. The philosophers set the goal of intellectual enlightenment. The Kabbalists strove for the mystical reconnection of the world to the Godhead. The masters of Musar aimed for a life of ethical perfection. The Hasidim sought to frame Jewish Law in simple devotion and joy. In our days of sovereign selves, what would the final product look like? In what specific ways is Torah supposed to make us flourish? This urgent agenda must be addressed, individually and collectively, so that the forest is not lost among the trees.

A Vort for Parashat Bechukotai
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Chapter 26 lays out the blessings awaiting us if we keep the Torah and, in greater detail, the Tochacha (rebuke), the litany of tragedies that will visit us for infidelity to God. It (and Leviticus) ends with the voluntary vows a person makes to the Temple, with specific values for categories of people. R’ Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin (late 18th C), explains the proximity – one listening to the Tochacha might despair, indeed much of it has happened – and ask “What am I worth? Does my life have meaning or value?” – questions the generation after the Holocaust can identify with. Chapter 27, he says, comes to tell us that, despite everything, every Jew has value. Good therapy on both the national and personal levels.

Table Talk
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

In the parasha we find the rewards we receive for observing the Mitzvot (commandments) and the penalties we might get for transgressing them. If you listen to the reading in the synagogue, you will notice that the penalties are usually read without a break and in a low voice.

1) The Parasha opens with all the rewards that will happen if the People of Israel keep the Mitzvot (commandments). What is the first reward mentioned (26:3-5)? Is this an award for a single person or for a community? What does this tell us about observing Mitzvot?

2) In 26:6 we are promised both peace in the land and that no sword shall pass through it. Do the 2 parts of the verse mean the same thing (if so, why repeat it)? If not, what does each one mean?

3) In 26:14-45 are the potential penalties if we do not follow the Mitzvot. Compare the length of the rewards and the penalties. Which is longer? Why do you think that one is longer? (You may wish to look at the topics covered in each section.)

4) In 26:42-45 the tone begins to change to hope. What will happen following the punishment and the exile? Why do you think that it is important to give hope on the heels of the penalties?

5) Chapter 27 teaches the laws of redeeming (by paying a set monetary value) a person or an item consecrated for the Temple. Why do you think that a person will choose to give himself to the Temple?

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