Yeshivat Orot Shaul, Ra'anana

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Beit Hamidrash

Parashat Bechukotai as the Conclusion of a Covenant

By: Rav Tamir Granot

Note to readers: This shiur may be read as a continuation of the shiur on Parashat Mishpatim.

 

Part 1: Parashat Bechukotai as the Conclusion of a Covenant

 

Parashat Bechukotai opens with the following general formulation:

 

"If you will follow My statutes and observe My commandments, and perform them…."

 

The text goes on to warn:

 

"But if you will despise My statutes and your soul abhor My judgments, such that you will not perform all of My commandments, thereby violating My covenant…."

 

This is a two-sided formulation whose general character is typical of a covenant. In other words, following the enumeration of several commandments, there are some verses of summary which define the reward that awaits the nation if it fulfills the commandments - i.e., uphold the covenant - and the punishment that will befall them if they violate it. As the second verse quoted above explicitly states, observance of the statutes and the judgments itself represents upholding the covenant, and the opposite is likewise true – failure to observe them represents a violation of the covenant.

 

Chapter 26 lists God's promises to the nation if they will uphold the covenant:

 

"I shall give your rains at their proper time, and the land will give its produce…."

 

It also presents a lengthy list of punishments for violation of the covenant:

 

"I shall do this, too, to you: I shall appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever…."

 

And the parashiyot preceding Bechukotai are indeed crammed with statutes and commandments, and it is these that the Torah refers to here as the substance of the covenant. Thus, there can be no doubt that what we have here, at the beginning of Bechukotai, is a general formulation of conclusion of the covenant. Proof of the extent to which this form is typical of a covenant may be found in the covenant in Sefer Devarim, where once again we find promises of reward and punishment at the end of the covenant, as part of the conditions (chapter 28), preceded by a long list of commandments.

 

But a comparison with Sefer Devarim also serves to show what is missing in Sefer Vayikra. In Sefer Devarim, the blessings and curses follow a description of a covenantal ceremony that is destined to take place upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval. In other words, first there is the actual ceremony of the forging of the covenant, which is set out in the text after the chapters containing the commandments over which the covenant is forged, and only afterwards is there the appendix, as it were, with the blessings and curses.

 

The order in Sefer Devarim, then, may be summarized as follows:

 

1.         Declaration of the future covenant: "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse…." (Devarim 11:26)

2.         The substance of the covenant, including chapters of commandments: "These are the statutes and the judgments which you shall observe to perform." (12:1)

3.         The covenant ceremony, including its summary: "This day the Lord your God commands you to perform these statutes and the judgments…" (26:16), and later; "These shall stand to bless the nation upon Mount Gerizim…" (27:12)

4.         Appendix: Reward if the covenant is upheld; punishments for its violation: "And it shall be, if you will diligently listen… to observe to perform all of His commandments…" (chapter 28).

 

If we compare the covenant presented in Sefer Vayikra with that described in Sefer Devarim, we find that two elements appear in both: number 2 (the substance of the covenant), and number 4 (the appendix of reward and punishment). The other two elements that appear inSefer Devarim are missing: number 1 (the introductory declaration that what follows is a covenant), and number 3 (the ceremony of the covenant itself). These omissions are starkly apparent from the structure of Sefer Vayikra itself. How can the sefer conclude with the verses of the covenant if there is no preceding announcement of it, nor any actual event in which the covenant is forged?

 

Chapter 26 of Sefer Vayikra therefore appears to be wedged in the wrong place, because it is the conclusion of a covenant that has no beginning anywhere in the sefer.

 

Part 2: Problem of the Status and Location of the Covenant in Parashat Bechukotai

 

Let us try to examine the location of this covenant in chapter 26 from a more general perspective. The beginning of Parashat Bechukotai is not, in fact, a real introduction; it is a continuation of a speech whose beginning and end we need to find. A quick review leads us to the verse at the beginning of chapter 25, and to the end of chapter 26.

 

The beginning of the speech reads as follows:

 

"God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them, When you come to the land… then the land shall lie fallow…." This is followed by the laws of Shemitta (the Sabbatical year) and Yovel (the Jubilee year).

 

The end of the speech, following all of the curses, reads:

 

"These are the statutes and the judgments and the teachings that God set down between Himself and Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moshe."

 

Rashi questions why specific mention is made of Mount Sinai in this regard, while the other commandments in Sefer Vayikra are recorded as having been given in the Tent of Meeting. He deduces that just as these laws (concerning Shemitta and Yovel) were given in all their details at Sinai - so were all the others; they were merely repeated in the Tent of Meeting. But this way of putting the question distracts our attention from a different – perhaps more important – question on the verse: Why is Mount Sinai mentioned in connection with the Tent of Meeting at all? Let us explain: our problem – and Rashi's problem – is not one of location. After all, the Tent of Meeting stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. The problem concerns chronology. As we know, God promised Moshe, in Sefer Shemot, that if Bnei Yisrael would build a Mishkan, He would dwell in their midst and would speak with Moshe from above the covering of the Ark, from between the two keruvim(Shemot 25). The building of the Mishkan was completed, and as the beginning of Sefer Vayikraindeed testifies, "God spoke to him in the Tent of Meeting, saying…." From that point onwards, God speaks to Moshe only in the Tent of Meeting; it is a metaphysical fact that the Divine Presence rests in the Mishkan.

 

The introduction to Parashat Behar is most surprising, therefore, because what it means is that this parasha actually preceded the commands given in the Tent of Meeting; it was given while Moshe stood atop Mount Sinai. From a literary perspective, the significance of this is that this parasha actually belongs to Sefer Shemot, which records commandments given at Sinai, rather than to Sefer Vayikra, which records commands given in the Tent of Meeting. Why does this parasha, which by all appearances was conveyed to Moshe long ago (some time between the first Sivan, when the Torah was given, and the following Nissan, when the Mishkan was inaugurated), appear here, at the end of Sefer Vayikra, as though forgotten and only now inserted as an afterthought?

 

We encountered a similar problem concerning chapters 5-6 of Sefer Vayikra, which conclude with the following sentence:

 

"This is the teaching of the burnt offering, of the meal offering, and of the sin offering and of the guilt offering, and of the consecration offering, and of the sacrifice of the peace offering, which God commanded Moshe at Mount Sinai, on the day he commanded Bnei Yisrael to offer their sacrifices to the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai" (Vayikra 7:37-38).

 

Here, too, the Torah testifies that the laws that are about to be recorded were given to Moshe at Sinai, before God started talking to him in the Tent of Meeting. Chronologically, these verses come first, but their literary expression comes later. The question in each case is identical: if the unit, in terms of subject matter and content, belongs to Sefer Vayikra and the revelation in the Tent of Meeting, why was it uttered by God at Sinai? And if, in terms of subject and content, it pertains to what was said at Mount Sinai, why does it appear only in Sefer Vayikra, which records God's revelations in the Tent of Meeting? [1]

 

Part 3: Connection Between Chapter 25 (Behar) and Chapter 26 (Bechukotai)

 

Rashi's question emphasizes the fact that the laws of Shemitta (chapter 25) were given at Sinai, and he explores the significance of this fact. But, as we have concluded above, not only the unit on Shemitta but in fact the entire section on the covenant – and particularly its blessings and curses – was also given at Sinai. In other words, what we have is an organic unit comprising two main parts:

 

a.         chapter 25 – laws of Shemitta and Yovel

b.         chapter 26 – promise of reward and punishment for upholding the covenant.

 

This unit as a whole was given at Sinai.

 

What is the connection between these two parts, causing them to appear here as a single unit?

 

The answer – or, at least, the beginning of an answer – appears explicitly in the verses of the curses:

 

(26:34) "Then the land will enjoy its Shabbats, so long as it lies desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its Shabbats. So long as it lies desolate it shall rest, for not having rested during your Shabbats while you dwelled upon it… (43) Then the land shall be forsaken by them and shall enjoy its Shabbats while lying desolate from them, and they will make amends for their sin, because – truly because – they have despised My judgments and their soul has abhorred my statutes".

 

The Torah establishes here that key to the number of years to be spent in exile – i.e., the punishment for violating the covenant – is the number of Shemitta years during which the land did not lie fallow as it should have. In fact, Israel's exile is presented as a process of making amends, whereby the land receives that which is owed to it. It must lie desolate as compensation for the years during which Israel desecrated its sanctity. This may perhaps be the reason why the curse also mentions that "it shall be desolate for your enemies who dwell upon it." What kind of a curse is this? Chazal explain that this curse contains a measure of blessing, and in practical terms this is certainly the case. But the reason for this peculiar "blessing" is that exile is described here as a process that takes place for the sake of the land, as if to restore it spiritual strength.

 

The symbolic and inherent connection to the matter of Shemitta – which is actually not referred to as "Shemitta" but rather "the Shabbat of the land" – is clear. The Shabbat of the land is an expression of its sanctity; the fact that it is God's land: "For the land is Mine." The fact that we live in the land and that it is given to us is part of the fulfillment of the covenant – "For you are strangers and residents with Me." The Jubilee year turns this metaphysical ideal into an all-embracing legal principle: everything returns to its original place, there is no absolute acquisition. This metaphysical and legal perception lies at the foundation of the covenant. The land does not belong to us. It is given to us, as part of the covenant. It may not be taken for granted. Violation of the covenant is a reflection of the perception that the land is ours no matter what. Exile returns everything to its natural state: the land returns to its original Owner, and then, obviously, it rests – i.e., it is not worked by any human hand, and we live outside of it, so that we may be able to receive it as reward for the covenant when we become worthy of it.

 

This leads us to the understanding that the crux of this unit, given at Mount Sinai, is in fact the covenant, while the matter of the Shabbat of the land is juxtaposed to it because the ideal that underlies the commandment of Shemitta – the Divine status of the land – also determines the substance of the curses in the covenant.

 

Part 4: Location of the Unit on Shemitta and the Covenant at Mount Sinai

 

In our shiur on Parashat Mishpatim, we noted the sense of a sort of jump from Parashat Mishpatim to Teruma. This impression arises both from the sudden preoccupation with the Mishkan, which was never mentioned in any of the previous parashiyot, and from the fact that the covenantal ceremony of the giving of the Torah at Sinai lacks the usual conclusion in the form of promised reward for those who uphold it and punishment for those who violate it.

 

If we take the presentation of the covenant in Sefer Devarim as the complete model, and compare the covenants in Shemot and Vayikra to it, we make an interesting discovery:

 

Complete model in Devarim:

 

a.         Declaration of establishment of covenant (Re'eh)

b.         Commandments – substance of the covenant

c.         Ceremony of the covenant (Mount Gerizim etc.)

d.         Reward and punishment (blessing and curse)

 

Model in Sefer Shemot (Giving of the Torah)

 

a.         Declaration – "And now, if you will diligently listen… and observe My covenant" (Shemot 19)

b.         Commandments – Shemot 20-23, "And these are the judgments…"

c.         Ceremony – Shemot 24, "And he took the book of the covenant…"

d.         Reward and punishment – omitted

 

Model in Sefer Vayikra (25-26)

 

a.         Declaration – omitted

b.         Commandments – section on Shemitta and Yovel, and perhaps also the preceding laws

c.         Ceremony – omitted

d.         Reward and punishment – Parashat Bechukotai

 

We see that the elements of the covenant in Shemot and Vayikra actually complement each other. Since the Torah tells us explicitly that the element of the covenant in Vayikra came from Sinai, we need only take one further step to conclude that in fact it is the same covenant, with a literary division into two parts. We propose the following structure:

 

a.         Declaration of establishment of covenant – "And now, if you will diligently listen… and observe My covenant" (Shemot 19)

b.         Commandments – substance of the covenant – Shemot 20-23, "And these are the judgments…" [2].

c.         Ceremony – Shemot 24 – "He took the book of the covenant…"

d.         Reward and punishment (blessing and curse) – Parashat Bechukotai (perhaps introduced by Parashat Behar, including the laws of Shemitta and Yovel)

 

In other words, the covenant known as the Covenant of Sinai or the Covenant of Chorev (as, for example, in Devarim 28:69 – "Aside from the covenant which He forged with them at Chorev") includes the text in Sefer Shemot from chapter 19 onwards, as well as chapters 25-26 ofSefer Vayikra. Theoretically, this proposition seems logical. But is there any indication, in the course of the description in Sefer Shemot, hinting at the missing portion which we find later inSefer Vayikra?

 

The answer would appear to be in the affirmative:

 

"God said to Moshe: Come up to Me to the mountain, and be there, and I shall give you the tablets of stone and the Torah (teaching) and the commandments which I have written, to instruct them" (Shemot 24:12).

 

The Holy One promises Moshe that He will convey to him, on the mountain, in addition to the tablets of stone also the "Torah and the commandments." But the continuation of the text contains no "teaching" nor commandments; there is only the command to build the Mishkan, which is clearly not what was referred to. Where, then, are the promised "Torah and commandments"? The commentators offer various explanations:

 

Targum Yonatan suggests that the reference was only to the Ten Commandments, which hint to (or represent general categories that include) all of the other commandments.

 

But the literal reading of the text clearly indicates that the "teaching and the commandments" means more than just the Ten Commandments (as Rav Sa'adya Gaon and Rashi point out).

 

The Ibn Ezra proposes a different interpretation:

 

"'The Torah' – this refers to the Written Law; 'And the commandments' – this refers to the Oral Law, for all of the commandments were given to Moshe at Sinai during the days when he stood atop the mountain."

 

The Ibn Ezra adopts the view of Chazal that the reference here is general rather than pointing to any specific list of commandments. Essentially, this interpretation represents a declaration of faith that the entire Torah originated at Sinai.

 

In his Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam treats this rabbinic teaching as the source for the principle that the Oral Law was conveyed at Sinai. But on the literal level the text gives no indication of this.

 

Let us try to understand what is being referred to here by analyzing the terms "Torah" and "commandments."

 

First, let us go back to Vayikra. The first verse of the curses reads, "If you will not listen to Me, and not perform all of these commandments, and if you despise My statutes and your soul abhor My judgments so as not to fulfill all My commandments, thereby violating My covenant" (26:14-15).

 

An examination of these verses shows that the term "commandments" is meant in the general sense, and is used as a generic term ("all of these commandments") which is then defined as "My statutes" and "My judgments."

 

Hence, "My commandments" = "My statutes" + "My judgments."

 

Attention should also be paid to the fact that in many verses, the term "commandment" or "commandments" appears alone as a general concept, while the terms "statutes" and "judgments" appear together, as a complementary pair of categories of commandments.

 

In light of the above, let us now examine the closing verses of the curses:

 

"These are the statutes and the judgments and the teachings which God set forth between Himself and Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, by the hand of Moshe."

 

Now that we have established that "statutes and judgments" may be summarized in a word as "commandments," we may say that the Torah is telling us here, "These are the commandments and the teachings…." Appearing here as a summary of the unit describing the curses, the reference is obviously also to all of the commandments and teachings that preceded this unit – i.e., the covenant in its entirety. Now, if we compare what we are told when Moshe ascends the mountain, in Sefer Shemot, with what we find at the end of Vayikra, we find that the conclusion echoes the introduction:

 

Shemot 24 – Introduction:

 

a.         "Ascend to Me to the mountain"

b.         "And I shall give you"

c.         "and the teaching"

d.         "and the commandments"

 

Vayikra 26 – Conclusion:

 

a.         "At Mount Sinai"

b.         "Which God gave"

c.         "and the teachings"

d.         "the statutes and the judgments" (= the commandments)

 

The conclusion that arises here is that in inviting Moshe to ascend the mountain, God intends to teach him the laws of Shemitta and Yovel, and – perhaps even more importantly, but only afterwards – the appendix of blessings and curses. For reasons that we have not yet established, this parasha (Vayikra 25-26) does not appear in its proper place, following chapter 24 of Shemot, as the closing section of the covenant (as we find, for example, in chapter 28 ofDevarim); rather, it is postponed to the end of Sefer Vayikra.

 

The metaphysical significance of the above will be treated below. Meantime, we already understand that in fact the covenant at Sinai is a complete one, including all its components. Part of it is recorded in Sefer Shemot, while the end appears only at the end of Vayikra, even though it was also part of the revelation at Sinai.

 

We may now propose our answer to the question of why the conclusion of the covenant appears only at the end of Vayikra.

 

The Torah contains three major collections of commandments:

 

a.            The list in Sefer Shemot, given at Sinai (20-23)

b.           The list in Sefer Vayikra, given in the Tent of Meeting (18-25)

c.            The list in Sefer Devarim, given at the plains of Moav (12-26).

 

The rest of the Torah consists of narratives or historical (genealogical etc.) lists, and a large section devoted to the Mishkan and its service (end of Shemot and beginning of Vayikra, as well as part of Bamidbar).

 

The first collection of laws (in Sefer Shemot) appears (see shiur on Parashat Mishpatim) as part of the covenant at Sinai.

 

The third collection (Devarim) is part of the covenant forged on the plains of Moav.

 

The middle collection (Vayikra) does not appear to be part of either of these two covenants. There are two covenants, but three sets of laws.

 

The transfer of the conclusion of the covenant and the appendix of blessings and curses to the end of Vayikra serves to include the second collection of laws within the covenant of Sinai. Hence we may say that the covenant of Sinai includes not only the commandments in theparashot of Yitro and Mishpatim, but also the chapters of laws in Sefer Vayikra. In other words, from a historical point of view the covenant in its entirety, including the chapters of summary, was given to Moshe at Sinai. From a literary and legal perspective, the transfer of the summary of the covenant to the end of Sefer Vayikra tells us that the chapters of commandments in Vayikra are also part of it.

 

Indeed, the introduction to the chapters of commandments in chapter 18 of Vayikratestifies that it is a sort of conclusion to the covenant in Parashat Bechukotai:

 

"God spoke to Moshe, saying: You shall not follow the behavior of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled; nor shall you follow the behavior of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, nor shall you follow their statutes. You shall perform My judgments and observe My statutes, to walk in them; I am the Lord your God. You shall observe My statutes and My judgments, which a man shall perform and live by them; I am the Lord… that the land not expel you when you defile it, as it expelled the nation that was before you."

 

The characteristic formulations "observe My statutes," "perform My judgments," and the threat throughout that the land will expel the nation, are all typical (linguistically and thematically) of chapter 26 – the curses. In other words, the Torah includes all the lists of commandments in the second part of Sefer Vayikra within the framework of the covenant that concludes it. I.e., their fulfillment or – heaven forefend – violation is also part of the covenant.

 

Part 5 – Sefer Shemot and the Missing Metaphysical Link

 

Our main question, in discussing the location of the concept of the Mishkan in Sefer Shemot, concerned the thematic jump between the parashiyot related to the exodus from Egypt – which assume God's revelation at Sinai and His appearance from the heavens, but not that God dwells on earth – and the parashiyot concerning the Mishkan, which assume God's presence within the camp of Israel, on earth.

 

I propose that in light of our discussion thus far, chapters 25-26 of Vayikra should be inserted immediately following chapter 24 (the covenant) of Shemot, and prior to the command concerning the Mishkan. This leads us to the missing metaphysical link.

 

Observance of the covenant ensures that Am Yisrael will enjoy all kinds of benefits: abundant wealth, security, and peace. But the crux of the Divine promise, in the wake of the covenant, is to be found in the following verses:

 

"And I shall set My dwelling place among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. And I shall walk among you, and I shall be your God, and you will be My nation." (26:11-12)

 

There are two promises here:

 

a.         That God's Presence will rest in the midst of the nation of Israel and the land of Israel, and

b.         That He will be our God (i.e., He will lead us and be our Sovereign), and we will be His nation.

 

While the second promise lies at the foundation of the Exodus from Egypt ("I shall take you as My nation and I shall be your God" – Shemot 6), the first promise – as stated – has no mention in Sefer Shemot until the sudden command to build the Mishkan. The two promises are obviously connected: the Judge and Leader acts from within His nation; only if God dwells in our midst can He lead us directly. This is the significance of God's declaration following the debacle of the Golden Calf: "I shall not ascend in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked nation – lest I consume you on the way." If God is in our midst, He leads, decides, and judges immediately. This can certainly be to the nation's detriment, where they are sinful.

 

If we pursue our assumption that these verses were given to Moshe at Sinai, prior to the building of the Mishkan, the Torah is then conveying an explicit message:

 

"If you follow My statutes and observe the covenant, I shall dwell in your midst." The promise of the Divine Presence is not a condition for the covenant, nor the foundation upon which the covenant is presented. Rather, it is its result; we may also say – its climax. But in terms of order, it is like the promises of peace or livelihood: it represents not the framework of the relationship, but rather its result. God's promise here to allow His Presence to rest among us, assumes the fundamental principle that God is not in heaven and He may reveal Himself from time to time in the world, but He may choose to actually dwell upon earth: "My resting place is among you." This is the necessary foundation for the concept of the Mishkan. The command to build the Mishkan closes the gap between the promise of the covenant – which, by its own terms, can be fulfilled only on earth – and the reality of Bnei Yisrael in the desert, encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. God promises that He will dwell amongst the nation meantime, along the way, too – and not only when they reach the land of Canaan – if they will build Him a Mishkan.

 

If we summarize what we have said above, the following picture emerges:

 

Divine service, in its most fundamental sense, does not require that God dwell amongst the nation. The metaphysical model that is presented up until the chapters of the covenant is that God remains in His heavenly abode, and He reveals Himself in the world as necessary, or leads us through some emissary – an angel. This is exactly what we are told in the unit describing the earthen altar and the unit on the angel (Shemot 20, 23).

 

Divine service may be aimed heavenward; such is the religious worship of every nation. But the Exodus also includes the idea of a covenant, meaning that God will be our King – "I am the Lord your God." In other words, while every nation has its king, when it comes to Bnei Yisrael, "God is your King" (as Shemuel tells the people – Shemuel 8). The moment that the nation enters into and accepts the covenant – "We shall do and we shall hear" – this represents an acceptance and invitation to God to rule over us. Therefore, immediately after the ceremony of the covenant, God promises that if the covenant is indeed upheld, He will be able to dwell in our midst, on earth. Meanwhile, the nation is not able to fulfill the covenant in its entirety, for they have not yet reached the land. Therefore God tells Moshe, "Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst." In other words, it is enough to enter into the covenant for God to agree to make His Presence rest among us. Obviously, actual violation of the covenant will lead to its cancellation. But even the cancellation of the covenant does not necessarily mean a cancellation of any relationship at all. God may no longer be our King in direct practice, He may lead us from afar, through an angel. He may not rest amongst us, but we still serve Him. The possibility of maintaining "religious relations" outside of the framework of the covenant, when it is violated, continues to exist. Hence, although the historical ideal is the fulfillment of the covenant and the establishment of the Mishkan, great importance is still attached to the more primal religious model, expressed in the verse, "In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you."

 

Historically and logically, then, the covenant with its climax – "I shall set My resting place in your midst" – precedes the command to build the Mishkan and provides its metaphysical foundation.

 

Notes:

 

[1] It should be noted that there is one other chapter in Sefer Vayikra with the same status – chapter 27, which deals with the laws of things dedicated to God. There the question is somewhat easier to deal with, because the very appearance of this chapter after chapter 26 – i.e., after the conclusion of the covenant – tells us that it is an appendix to the Sefer, rather than an integral part of it. See note in the summary.

[2] We must question whether Vayikra 25 was also part of the command conveyed in Parashat Mishpatim, or whether it was conveyed independently; see further below.

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish