The last parashah of the Book of Leviticus offers a kind of coda to this Torat Kohanim, " Torah of the priests." One might say that it draws to an inauspicious close, very different from the other books of our Bible. Genesis ends with the reconciliation of the house of Jacob, his and Joseph's death; our families are then ready to become a nation. Exodus draws to a sublime ending with God's Presence settling into the Mishkan that has just been completed by the Children of Israel. Numbers concludes with a recap of the forty years of travels in the wilderness; and Deuteronomy ends with Moses's final blessing to his people, and his peaceful death.
So this unique Book of Leviticus, situated in the middle of the Five Books of Moses, remains unique in its conclusion. If we view the entire book as a kind of manual for the priests, then B'chukotai spells out the terms of the warranty. Whereas, the book is primarily directed to the priestly conduct for rites and rituals, it assumes that the Children of Israel are fulfilling their roles. The Israelite priesthood is based on constant interaction with the "congregation," as well as an ongoing relationship to God. The last parashah, B'chukotai, is directed to the Children of Israel. Now that all the rules and regulations have been spelled out: sacrifices, holy days, bodily and household afflictions and disorders, laws of kashrut, and so on, now come the terms of agreement: "If you follow My commandments, . . . " (Leviticus 26:3).
If we follow God's laws, we will be rewarded: first and foremost with rains in their seasons! These rains provide the necessary ingredient for the earth's produce and our survival. The text continues: "I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone" (26:6). In the succinct eight verses that begin the parashah (26:3-11) is a mini-messianic vision of life lived by walking in God's ways. But if we do not live accordingly, then we get verses 14-46 (thirty-two verses)! "I will wreak misery upon you . . ." (26:15) through desolation of your land, wild beasts, terrible enemies, and so on. And, as if God wasn't clear enough, these admonitions are repeated. These words of toch'chah, "reproof" are harsh and frightening; they almost cancel out the blessings in the opening.
Our Book of Leviticus cannot end with such difficult words, so a short, seemingly disconnected addendum is added, detailing vows, gifts, and dues (see chapter 27). This summation brings us back to the daily lives of our ancestors and their daily interactions regarding property and livestock. It is as if some biblical "editor" wanted the last word: go about your business and let neither messianic visions nor Divine retribution deter us.
There is a longstanding Rabbinic tradition to end one's sermons with a nechemta, "message of comfort." So in keeping with this tradition, as we come to the conclusion of Leviticus, and we are a day short of Lag BaOmer (the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, when we break for festivities) let us focus on the message of hope and peace, and get a glimpse of the messianic horizon.
Our tradition has debated the whole notion of the messiah for centuries. It is a notion that does not quite appear in the Five Books of Moses. Scant references in the prophetic tradition become the basis for a later Rabbinic development of this idea of an actual messiah. But the debate continues as to the exact nature of a messianic era. Will we simply live in peace and prosperity? Will there be a resurrection of the dead? These remain open questions in our tradition, indicating certain discomfort with the whole notion.
In these last verses of Leviticus we get a brief synopsis based in this world. The rains in their seasons, peace in the Land, no wild beasts or terrible enemies; we will be fertile in every sense of the word, and God's Presence will dwell in our midst. In other words, God is telling us that this life of peace and prosperity is in our hands-no messiah is necessary! Yet we know how far we are from a life with God's Presence amongst us.
Most Europeans and North Americans cannot relate to seasonal rains. They have rain year round, and hence, the usual bounty. The Land of Israel is harsh: here we desperately need rain in the winter to live. Recent years have sustained a terrible drought. This promise of rain is both real and metaphoric. When resources are scarce, we can either resort to the basest of human behavior or the highest. If we can see the blessing of sharing then perhaps we can usher in a life of peace and tranquility; however, if we choose to defy God's laws, debase the other, resort to selfishness and violence, then God wants only to punish us.
Of course we know just how unfair life is. Every day, we witness evil and despair. We cry out against our personal and communal injustices. In this global village we now partake in every crisis, disaster, and never-ending images of inhumanity. We also witness beauty, and great acts of love, compassion, and heroism, miraculously defying of our imagination. In this great pendulum, what are we as individuals supposed to do to make a difference, to forge meaningful lives?
Nessa Rapoport writes this:
Unrealistic Chant for My Children1
loss or despair
joy and vitality
each day born fair
death or delay;
ease and tranquility
at close of day
A Rabbinic sage of the era of the destruction of the Second Temple, Yochanan Ben Zakai once said, "If you are busy planting a sapling and hear that the Messiah has arrived, first finish planting the sapling and then go a greet the Messiah" (Avot D'Rabbi Natan, 31b). Perhaps this is the message of this ever so challenging Book of Leviticus: we must "plant the sapling" and hope to bring each day closer to "ease and tranquility."
1. "Unrealistic Chant for My Children," Nessa Rapoport in A Woman's Book of Grieving (New York: Harper Collins Pub., 1994) p. 69
Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1976, helping to build a pluralistic, progressive, and egalitarian Jewish Israel.
Rabbi Kelman's explanation of the nechemta tradition, to end a sermon with words of comfort, provides food for thought for B'chukotai's Torah and haftarah readings.
The haftarah comes from Jeremiah (16:19?17:14), who prophesied the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, and offered words to the Israelites in exile: "Cursed are those who trust in mortals, making mortal flesh their strength" (17:5).
Years ago, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, I scoffed at Jeremiah. My trust was in other human beings. In the operating room, his life was in his surgeon's hands. Afterward, his oncologist guided us through his treatments.
But I now see Jeremiah's wisdom. He is concerned that we trust humans to the exclusion of God. Jeremiah continues, cursing the person who "turning their hearts from the Eternal." For Jeremiah knows that humans have limitations.
Yet, he continues, "Blessed are those who trust in the Eternal. . . . They shall be like a tree planted near water . . . never failing to bear fruit" (17:7-8).
Is Jeremiah telling us to put all our trust in God? No. We need people too. God doesn't perform surgery, administer chemotherapy, or provide counseling-humans do. But without faith in God, can we truly have faith in another person?
A story is told of two men, a rabbi and a tailor, who befriended each other during the Shoah. One day the SS officers made them dig a large pit. They knew that the officers planned to line them up in front of the pit and shoot them dead.
The rabbi suggested that he and his friend join hands, run, and jump over the pit to safety on the other side. His friend hesitated. "If we don't try" the rabbi urged, "we will surely die. We have nothing to lose."
And so the men ran, hand in hand, and jumped the pit to safety. The rabbi asked the tailor how he made it. He answered, "I thought about what God did for my ancestors in times of slavery, exile, crusades, and inquisitions. I put every ounce of my body in God's hands and trusted that God would see us through. How did you make it?"
"My friend," the rabbi answered, "I put my trust in you."
Rabbi Robin Nafshi serves as the rabbi at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire.
"B’chukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 957-970; Revised Edition, pp. 864-879;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 765-786"