Light from the Sidra

Bechukotai ('In my statutes') 4th June 2016. 27th Iyyar 5776

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

The immortal Jews!

Mark Twain, possibly America’s greatest writer, once published an essay entitled Concerning the Jews. In it he acknowledged there is something, in terms of pure reason, which is inexplicable about the Jewish people.

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 question but the last two chapters of Vayikra in a sense provide the answer. In spite of all the odds against them, 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 often initiated covenants with the kings he had conquered. 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 almighty suzerain. He had redeemed Israel from Egypt and was taking them to the land he had prepared for them. Israel’s part was to walk in his statutes, precepts and commandments. By doing so they would find themselves living in conditions that resembled Gan Eden. The land would yield so much harvest that the threshing would last until the vintage and the vintage would last until the sowing (verse 5). HASHEM would ‘provide peace in the land’ (verse 6), he would make them fruitful and increase them (verse 9) and he would ‘walk about in [their] midst’, as he did with Adam and Eve in Eden (verse 12, The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox).

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 Vayikra doesn’t end at 26:39; the book ends on a note of hope. If, when Israel has 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 ‘Most devious is the heart; It is perverse — who can fathom it?’ (TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation according to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

And yet HASHEM has remained 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).

Israel’s hope can’t rest on the covenant God established through Moses at Sinai. All that covenant has ever secured for Israel has been wrath on account of their disobedience. If the covenant at Sinai was the only covenant HASHEM made with Israel, Mark Twain would never have been able to write his famous essay because Israel would have vanished centuries ago.

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 Jewish people. They have a God who is willing to become one of them and even die for them.

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