Bechukotai 5784

From time to time throughout our texts we find reminders of our expected commitment to the covenant we entered into at Sinai, where we were affirmed as God’s people, with the condition that we follow God’s laws with the understanding that our purpose is to serve God – the very reason we were freed from slavery in Egypt.

The opening verse of Parashat Bechukotai reminds us of our commitment to this covenant and our relationship with God; “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…” (Leviticus 26:3). The next verses detail the rewards of keeping up our side of the deal, including the promise of “rains in their seasons” (Leviticus 26:4), as well as a whole host of other benefits as part of this covenant. A little further on we read; “And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins…” (Leviticus 26:18). What follows is the detail of the discipline referred to above, including making the earth inhospitable to the rains and impossible to cultivate.

As we learn throughout our study of Torah, the formula of “do good and you will be rewarded, misbehave and there will be consequences” is used fairly often in the Torah, to reiterate this message (it seems we aren’t very good at listening the first few times). Whilst not unique to Bechukotai, the promise of rain at the right time versus the threat of either no rain or rain that falls when it is not best suited to cultivating the land, along with the land rejecting that rain, would have resonated very strongly with our ancestors, especially with the heavy reliance on these rains to help achieve agricultural success.

While a fair amount of detail is provided for the blessings we will receive, the focus is usually placed on the barrage of consequences that we will face if we do not heed God’s laws and commandments. This set of rebuking curses is referred to as the “Tochecha” (the admonition), one of two such sets found in the Torah (the other is in Deuteronomy chapter 28).

Filled with grim predictions of deprivation, illness, persecution, ostracisation, and other complications, it makes for rather difficult reading and debate. There are traditions or customs where the 33 verses of Tochecha are read quickly in a hushed tone, so as not to draw too much attention to the content of the Tochecha. With such harsh detail and the desire not to focus too much on these verses, why are these verses placed here, and what purpose do they serve?

The Tochecha forms part of the conditions of the covenant we entered into with God. Covenants are serious commitments, with serious consequences if the covenant is broken. That said, we are reminded that the Tochecha is not simply about scaring us into compliance, rather it is about our duty and ability to reflect on who we are, what we are capable of and our duty to improve ourselves. These warnings indicate that we have the power to change our behaviours and avoid the dire outcomes included in the Tochecha, through true repentance which includes understanding our commitment to the covenant and making a concerted effort to adhere to God’s laws and commandments.

While we shouldn’t ignore the severity and seriousness of the Tochecha, its purpose should remind us of the opportunities that we have to learn from what we do (or don’t do), knowing that change is always possible, and that we have the ability to make those changes, after all the choice is there for us to acknowledge, understand and act upon.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein

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