Light from the Sidra

Behar/Bechukotai ('On the mountain'/By my decrees')

Torah: Leviticus 25: 1-27:34. Haftarah: Jeremiah 16: 19-17:14

You have been warned…

‘DON’T TEASE FUNNEL-WEBS!’ I’m writing this in Australia and twenty years ago, when I came to this beautiful country for the first time, there were large posters around Sydney displaying the warning above. I wasn’t sure what it meant but I soon found out. Sydney funnel-web spiders are among the most dangerous spiders in the world and are regarded by some to be the most deadly. Leave them alone and you’ll get along fine but upset them and they’ll attack and bite you. The problem is that they like water and are often found in swimming pools, into which they often fall while wandering around. Funnel-webs can survive immersion in water for several hours and can deliver a bite when removed from the water. They also show up with alarming frequency in garages and yards in suburban. Given the fact that a lot of Aussies wander around their houses, gardens and garages in their bare feet, I find it astonishing that in the last hundred years, only 27 deaths from funnel-web bites have been recorded. But in 1993 it seemed that some Aussies thought it was fun to play around with these deadly little critters and had to be warned. If you played with funnel-webs and you died, you had only yourself to blame.

Leviticus 16 is a warning writ large for Israel. Obey God and all will be well. ‘If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit… And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (Lv. 26:3,4,12).

However, there’s a flip side to the promise: ‘But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then…’ (Lv. 26:14-16). 

What follows throughout the rest of the chapter is a catalogue of woes that will befall Israel should the people fail to fulfil their covenant obligations to their God. To read Lv. 26 is to read Jewish history in advance. Every warning Moses utters has come to pass in the three-and-a-half thousand years of Jewish history. That is something anyone who is tempted to toss the Bible aside in contempt should pause to consider. If God has not spared his chosen people the horrors he foretold in Leviticus, it is sheer madness to imagine he will spare the rest of the nations on the day when he judges the world. Lv. 26 is a warning to us all.

But the sufferings of the Jews for their disobedience and rejection of their God and his Torah are not the end of the story. In verses 44-45, God assures Moses, ‘Yet for all that… I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God. But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.’

The survival of the Jewish people in spite of all they have suffered is one of the most remarkable facts of history. In 1900, Mark 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 this 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?

Mark Twain, being an agnostic, couldn’t answer his own question. The secret of Israel’s immortality is found in Lv. 26. The nation will survive because God will always be faithful to his covenant. But nations are composed of individuals and God does not simply address an amorphous mass of people in the chapter. He addresses individuals. Verses 40-42 are a further assurance: ‘But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me… if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.’

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m going to say next. The sufferings of Israel at the hands of the Gentiles throughout the centuries has been appalling but when I hear Jewish people ask, ‘Why has this happened to us?’ or when I hear Jewish people state that because of the sufferings the nation has endured there can be no God, I’m saddened even further because it is the sufferings of the Jews that proves the existence of God. Israel was told that their obedience would lead to blessing but disobedience would result in the very sufferings they have endured for so long.

Jeremiah sums it all up in the final verses of the Haftarah: ‘O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water’ (Jer. 17:13)

The prophet understands that he is no different to the other Israelites. He too shares Israel’s guilt and so he prays, ‘Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise…’ (Jer. 17:13). Should we do less?

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