Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 8 May 2021 / 26 Iyar 5781

Parashat Bechukotai

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Defectors’ Descent

This Torah portion contains one of two mournful rebukes in the Torah, foretelling and warning us of our eventual defection and its consequences. It is read in a low tone to reflect its solemn content. There are several phrases describing the nation’s various levels of descent — a process which is elaborated on by our Sages, and which Rav Hirsch witnessed acutely in his lifetime.

If you will not hearken to Me, and will not observe all these commandments... The first misstep refers to a failure to listen to the Word of G-d. Forsaking the Law in practice begins with neglecting the study and knowledge of Torah — one who does not study will disobey in practice.

And if you will despise My statutes. One who has lost the theoretical knowledge and understanding of the commandments and has ceased to observe them will be bothered by his conscience. In order to justify his behavior to himself, he will rationalize his disobedience as progress. He will accustom himself to look down on the observance of the mitzvahs and to dismiss them as antiquated. The defector remains keenly aware of the Torah’s presence and power in the lives of his contemporaries, and the faithfulness of those adherents are an indictment of him. In order to neutralize the impact of that indictment, he convinces himself that he is superior to the others and holds their adherence in contempt.

And if your soul will abhor My social ordinances... The process of defection continues. Unable to accept that others’ faithfulness to Torah is the product of their own inner conviction and devotion, the defector then seeks a superficial explanation for their observance. Hence, the next attack is on Jewish communal institutions and life. These are the institutions that have promoted Torah and its study and are therefore despised by the defectors. They particularly despise the leaders and view them as the misfortune of their race.

So that all of My commandments will not be observed. The defector does not stop at his own estrangement and contempt for others who observe and lead. Rather, defectors become fanatically intolerant at every opportunity. What they do not respect must not be respected by anyone else. What they do not observe must not be observed by others either. They declare war on the Torah, and obstruct its observance wherever and in whatever way they can. They convince themselves that they are acting for the good of mankind, and that their fight against the Torah is not a fight against G-d, but rather the fight against a dangerous myth of Revelation, against prophets who were imposters, and all of the duped deceivers who contributed to the fallacy of transmission. They will not stand for anyone observing the mitzvahs, and will justify their position by rejecting the Sinaitic origin of the Law.

So that you will break My covenant. There is yet one more level of descent. Even as they have failed to study and practice, have despised the Torah’s adherents and leaders, and attempt to block all fulfillment of mitzvahs, they have yet to break the last thread that binds them to G-d’s Covenant. The final step is the denial of G-d’s existence. For as long as the thought of G-d is in their mind, as long as they contemplate G-d’s existence — even with wavering doubt —they will consider the possibility of G-d’s Revelation, and the voice of their conscience will give them no rest. Only when this last light within is extinguished, will they find rest. And so, in their quest for peace of mind, they will stamp out this last spark and deny the existence of G-d.

But even then, G-d does not lose hope. He shapes history in ways that bring about introspection and will require actions and forbearance amounting to the antithesis of those sins to bring the furthest of defectors back.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 26:14-15, 39-43

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