Parashat B'chukotai is the final Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus. Here we have learned, perhaps more than we ever wanted to know about the statutes, rules, and details of the work of the kohanim, the priests, and the sacrificial system. In the midst of all this we were also presented with a whole series of inspiring laws in Parashat K'doshim about how we can bring a measure of holiness into our daily lives as we interact with others. In fact, the focus of the much of the Book of Leviticus is considered by commentators and scholars to be "holiness."
This week's portion seems qualitatively different than the rest of the book and is divided into two sections, basically by the two chapters. The first section (Leviticus 26:3-46) contains a series of blessings and curses, and is considered to be an epilogue to all of Leviticus. The second section, chapter 27, appears to be somewhat of an afterthought containing supplementary laws about vows, gifts, and dues that seem to have been left out previously. In our examination today, we will focus on the epilogue.
The parashah opens with the following words: "If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce ..." (26:3-4). After being told that the Land will be fruitful if we obey God's commandments, we further learn in the next 8 verses that there will be peace in the Land, we will be victorious over enemies outside the Land, we will be fertile and multiply, and the Divine Presence will dwell in our midst.
Following this picture of prosperity and tranquility, we read, "But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments ...and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you..." (26:14-16). The section continues with 5 subsections of curses that parallel the blessings. The difference, however, is that the curses are described in much greater detail and take up a total of 30 verses (26:14-43) compared with the total eleven verses (26:3-13) of blessings. The penultimate verse in this chapter raises the specter of hope as God promises to " ...remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt ... " (26:45). The final verse in this chapter teaches clearly that all of the laws in Torah – including Leviticus – were given at Sinai (26:46).
It is interesting to note that this pattern of blessings and curses appears at least two additional times in the Torah, once in a very abbreviated form in Exodus (23:20ff.) and a much longer exposition of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy (chapter 28). So, the question arises, why it is necessary to detail both the blessings and the curses several times in Torah? After such focus on holiness – at least in Leviticus – wouldn't it be enough to simply state what the blessings will be for following the rules? After raising us up and inspiring us, why does the text need to bring us down with fear?
In pondering these questions and getting ready to write this d'var Torah, it happens that I attended a scholar-in-residence program at my synagogue in which one of the visiting scholar/rabbis, Rabbi Simcha Zevit, told a story entitled The True Artist.1 Now, I must admit that the story has little to do directly with our parashah, and its actual meaning (at least according to Rabbi Feinstein in his brief introduction to it in his book) may even contradict what I am about to say. However, it did speak to me and gave me some insights to my questions, and I will share my thoughts with you.
The story, like so many Jewish stories, is about a king who had a wonderful and very large palace. The palace was decorated so beautifully that it took people's breath away when they entered. There was, however, one very long and wide hall that was empty, for the king couldn't decide what to do with it.
The king decided to hold a contest and looked at the works of all the artists in the realm. He chose two artists to compete for a huge prize and gave each of them one of the long walls of the hallway to use as a "canvas." He gave them one year to complete their side and promised unlimited resources.
The artist who had the right side immediately went to work planning, and in about a month he started work with dozens of assistants. On the 365th day in the morning he finished his work and it was magnificent. Anyone who looked at it felt like they were transported to Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden.
The artist who had been assigned the left side began on day one by pulling up a chair and staring at the wall. He did the same on the second and third days and, in fact, he simply sat in that chair and stared for 364 days! He did not do anything at all until the other artist finished his work on the morning of the last day.
Finally, at the end of the day, the king greeted the two artists outside the hall in great anticipation. He looked first at the right side of the hall and was speechless. He couldn't believe how beautiful it was. He had never seen anything like it. He then turned to the other wall and saw that it was an exact replica of the first one. Every shape and color was there exactly as it was on the other side. There was just one difference – he, himself, stood in the midst of the garden wearing exactly what he was wearing at that moment. He gasped! He went closer to that wall and saw that the second artist hadn't painted or created anything on it. He had simply lined the wall with mirrors floor to ceiling!
I hope you agree that this is an interesting story (even if you don't know how it ends), but what does it have to do with insights into blessings and curses? Immediately after I heard it I understood our difficult issue in a new light. It occurred to me that the blessings and the curses are like the work of the two artists. Perhaps the blessings are the original artwork and the curses are the mirror image. And, perhaps it is human nature that we need a mirror image, the reverse of the original, to see ourselves in a place of beauty and blessing. The curses, thus, may provide the mirror that lets us know what we might have if we truly focus on the blessings of holiness.
Shortly after the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy, which parallel our parashah, we read, "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live ..." (Deuteronomy 30:19). May we use the mirror provided by God through Torah to choose life for ourselves and our children!
- Rabbi E. M. Feinstein, Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, Inc., 2008), pp. 21-25. To find out how the king reacted and who won the contest, please read the story for yourself.
Robert Tornberg, RJE , is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.