Commentary for Bechukotai

7 Jun

In this week’s parshah we read the tochechah, a long series of verses warning us of all of the terrible things that will befall us if we disobey God, and then how much worse things will get if we still proceed in disobeying God after that, etc. etc. One interesting question asked about the tochechah is why it exists in the first place. Obviously disobeying God is bad, and those who disobey God will be punished, but most of us probably could have guessed that from the beginning, and for those who couldn’t they need look no further than the fate of the generation of Noah or those who abandoned God in favor of worshipping the golden calf to see that this is the case. Why, then, is it necessary to spell out the fate the Israelites will face if they abandon God in such painstaking detail?

 

Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus 20:5, determines that the rewards bestowed by God are five hundred times greater than the punishments God bestows. In the first chapter of this week’s parshah, however, there are first a few verses dealing with the rewards we will receive for following in God’s ways, and then there are three times as many verses describing what will happen to us if we spurn them. Ibn Ezra reconciles the contradiction between Rashi’s statement and the hard numbers in our parshah in an interesting way. He notes that the rewards promised to us for following in God’s ways in the beginning of this parshah are described in very general terms, while the punishments for disobedience are described in fine detail. Because God always holds true to God’s word, this leaves wiggle room for the rewards to be increased to whatever degree God believes we have earned, but for the curses, the painstaking detail God uses here is in reality God self-limiting the degree of punishment we will face. With this view, the tochechah serves not only as a warning against the consequences of sin, but also as a promise of compassion.

 

The tochechah should not be looked at as an isolated section, but rather the entire chapter in this week’s parshah should be looked at together. It starts with the promise of blessings we will receive for following in God’s ways, continues with the tochechah listing the punishments we will receive if we do not, and then concludes with the following verses: “But despite all of this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them- for I am The Lord, their God. I will remember for them the covenant of the first ones, those whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be God unto them- I am The Lord. These are the decrees, the ordinances, and the teachings that The Lord gave, between Godself and the Children of Israel, at Mount Sinai, through Moses (Lev. 26:44-46).” With this context it is clear that the tochechah is not about the promise of punishment, but rather about the promise that God will always be open to and desirous of our repentance.

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