Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 25 May 2019 / 20 Iyyar 5779

Parshat Bechukotai

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Correspondence, Consequence, and Correction

This parsha 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. At the very end of this rebuke, after a description of the nation’s seven levels of descent, and of the difficult circumstances that G-d sends their way in response, the Torah concludes with the following commentary about the difficulties the nation will encounter as a result of its disloyalty: …and they shall satisfy the debt of their iniquity — all in accordance with, and by that which accords with, the fact that they despised My social ordinances [mishtapati] and their soul abhorred My statutes [chukotai].

In this curious phrase — ya’an u’vayaan [in accordance with, and by that which accords with] — Rav Hirsch understands the entire mechanism of punishment. The fate decreed for the Jews in exile will 1) be in direct relationship to their sins and will 2) require actions and forbearance amounting to the antithesis of those sins to directly atone for them.

Two sins are described as weighing heavily on the people as debt. First, they rejected the G-d given social ordinances, and sought to establish their national communal life on the basis of other values. Second, they abhorred G-d’s statutes, specifically those intended to function as moral restraints on sensual gratification. In their minds, those restraints deprived them of their personal happiness and enjoyment.

Accordingly, two consequences resulted: their national communal life was shattered, and their personal happiness was eclipsed. For centuries they had to live in foreign states as aliens without any civil rights or protection of the law. Their pleasures in joys of life were likewise curtailed. Ya’an — in accordance with… U’vya’an — and by that which accords. Just as the reproving punishment corresponded to the sin, so too, their atonement is to be effected by a corresponding virtue. Social advantage, personal gain and pleasure had been their primary concern, whereas the Torah and its commandments were made secondary to these and were left to chance.

For centuries the Jews were forced to live in circumstances and situations in which almost every observance of a mitzvah would entail the sacrifice of one of life’s pleasures or the renunciation of a human right. During many periods of the bitter exile Jews were challenged to remain faithful to the mitzvot, paying with imprisonment or martyrdom. No matter what sacrifice and hardship, persecution and sorrow that would befall them and their children, the Jews were to regard observance of the mitzvot as their first and essential concern. All other concerns — including the material prosperity and social position that once lured them away from Torah — must be sacrificed for a committed life. In order to atone for their former indifference to Torah, they will now have to forgo promotion of their personal happiness. U’vya’an — by this corresponding virtue — will they atone for their sin and return to the Land.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 26:43

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