Light from the Sidra

Bechukotai ('In my statutes'). 17 May 2014. 17 Iyyar 5774

Torah: Leviticus 26:3-27:34. Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Faithless people; faithful God

Mark Twain remains one of America’s greatest writers and in 1899 he wrote an essay entitled Concerning the Jews in which he acknowledged that, in terms of pure reason, there was something inexplicable not only about the Jewish people but also about their success. In the essay, he wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. . . 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 the book of Leviticus in a very real sense provide the answer. In spite of the odds, the Jewish people have survived because they stand in a unique relationship to 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 often initiated covenants with nations they had conquered. The conqueror (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.

HASHEM was Israel’s suzerain. He had redeemed the nation from Egypt and was going to take them into a good land he had prepared for them. Israel’s part of the agreement 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’ (Lev 26:5, The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Everett Fox), God would ‘give peace throughout the land’ (verse 6, ibid), he would make them fruitful and make them many (verse 9) and, as he did with Adam and Eve in Eden, he would ‘walk about in [their] midst’ (verse 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. But Leviticus doesn’t end at 26:39. Instead, the book ends on a note of hope. If Israel was to go into exile but repented and turned back to their God, he would 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 most deceitful of all. . . who can know it?’ (Jer. 17:9). And yet God is faithful. He remains faithful to Israel and, in Leviticus 26:42, he assures his people: ‘I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land.’ Notice that HASHEM does not remember the covenant he established with Israel at Sinai. The only thing the Sinai covenant ever secured for the Jewish people was judgement on account of their disobedience. If the covenant at Sinai was the only covenant God made with Israel, Mark Twain would never have been able to write his famous essay.

Israel’s hope lies in the unconditional covenant HASHEM established with Abraham in Genesis 15, in which he 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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