Light from the Sidra


Leviticus 26:3-27

Mark Twain was possibly America’s greatest writer. In 1899, he wrote an essay Concerning the Jews in which he acknowledged there was something, in terms of pure reason, which was inexplicable about the Jewish people. Twain wrote:


If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

As an agnostic, Mark Twain had no answer to his own question but the last two chapters of Vayikra in a sense give us the answer. In spite of the odds, the Jewish people have survived because they stand in a unique relationship with the Creator of the universe.

Chapter 26 of Leviticus is set in the form of an ancient suzerain treaty, which would have been familiar to the Israelites. In the ancient Middle East, powerful kings would often initiate covenants with kings he had conquered. The more powerful of the two kings (the suzerain) would lay certain conditions on the conquered vassal, spelling out the benefits that would accrue from keeping the covenant and the consequences of disobedience.

Yahweh was Israel’s suzerain. He had redeemed them from Egypt and was going to take them into a good land he had prepared for them. Israel’s part was to obey his laws, statutes, precepts and commandments. By doing so they would find themselves living in conditions that resembled Gan Eden. The land would yield so much that “threshing will overtake vintage … and vintage will overtake sowing” (v 5, The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Everett Fox), God would “give peace throughout the land” (v 6, ibid), God would make them fruitful and make them many (v 9) and, as he did with Adam and Eve in Eden, he would “walk about in [their] midst” (v 12, ibid).  

However, if Israel refused to obey God’s commandments, if they spurned his laws and violated his covenant, they would suffer the consequences. The rest, as they say, is history. And yet…

Vayikra does not end at 26:39; the book ends on a note of hope. If, when they have gone into exile, they repent and turn back to their God, he will have mercy on them and restore them.  

We know from the later Prophets that even after the people returned from exile they fell short of what was required of them. In the Haftarah, the prophet Jeremiah recognises that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). And yet…

God is faithful. He remains faithful to Israel because in Leviticus 26:42, he assures his people: “I will bear-in-mind my Yaakov covenant, and yes, my Yitzhak covenant, and yes, my Avraham covenant will I bear-in-mind, and the land I will bear-in-mind…” (The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Everett Fox),

Israel’s hope can never rest on the covenant God established with them through Moses at Sinai. All that covenant has even secured for the Jewish people is wrath on account of their disobedience. If the covenant at Sinai was the only covenant made with Israel, Mark Twain would never have been able to write his famous essay.

Israel’s hope lies in the unconditional “Avraham covenant”, established in Genesis 15, in which God took sole responsibility for keeping the covenant, being willing to be “halved” like the sacrificial victims Abraham kills, rather than renege on his promises.

That is the secret of the immortality of the Jews. They have a God who is willing to become mortal and even die for them.

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