Rabbi Bernie Fox
VaYikra: Long Story, Scary Ending
If you go in the way of My decrees and you observe My commandments and perform them, then I will provide your rains in their time and the land will give forth its bounty and the tree of the field will yield its fruit. (Sefer VaYikra 26:3-4)
1. The theme of Sefer VaYikra and its conclusion
Parshat BeChukotai concludes Sefer VaYikra. Much of the parasha is devoted to describing the consequences that follow the observance of the mitzvot or their abandonment. The parasha describes the blessings that the nation will experience in response to observance of the Torah. Then, in some detail, the suffering that will befall the people if they abandon the commandments is described.
Why is this section placed at the end of Sefer VaYikra? This book of the Torah is primarily devoted to laws relevant to service in the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple. There is significant deviation, within the book, from this theme. Nonetheless, the theme does repeatedly assert itself. It is interesting that the sefer concludes with this description of blessings and calamities.
2. Sefer VaYikra continues and concludes the narrative of Sefer Shemot
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l offers a simple but insightful response to this question. He directs our attention to the continuity of the Torah’s presentation. He points out that, in an important respect, Sefer VaYikra continues a presentation or narrative that began in Sefer Shemot. Sefer Shemot describes the Sinai Revelation. The commandment to create a tabernacle – the Mishcan was communicated to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael at Sinai. Sefer VaYikra continues the presentation of the laws communicated at Sinai. It focuses on the laws that regulate the service in the Mishcan and will later be observed in the Bait HaMikdash. Included in the sefer are various other mitzvot. All of this material was presented to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael at Sinai.
The next book of the Torah – Sefer BeMidbar – opens a new chapter in the Torah’s narrative. Its theme is the experiences of Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness after departing from Sinai. In other words, Sefer VaYikra completes the Torah’s discussion of the Sinai Revelation.
And Moshe took the book of the covenant and he read it to the nation. And they said: All that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will hearken. (Sefer Shemot 24:7)
3. Sinai – Revelation and covenant
At Sinai the nation experienced Revelation. They heard the words of Hashem addressed to them. However, there is another aspect to the Sinai experience. The above passage explains that at Sinai the nation entered into a covenant with Hashem. They affirmed their entry into this covenant with the declaration, “All that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will hearken”. In entering into the covenant, the nation committed itself to the observance of the commandments. Rav Soloveitchik explains that there is a second aspect of the covenant. Through entering into the Sinai covenant, the people accepted that their dedication to the Torah or their abandonment of its laws and principles will have consequences. In other words, the blessings and adversities described in our parasha are an integral element of the Sinai covenant.
4. Parshat BeChukotai’s consequences are fundamental to the Sinai covenant
This insight provides an explanation for the inclusion of this section at this point in the Torah. With the close of Sefer VaYikra, the Torah concludes its discussion of the Sinai experience. Sefer BeMidbar will focus on the post-Sinai wilderness experience. Before departing from its discussion of the Sinai Revelation, the Torah concludes its description of this second aspect of the Sinai covenant – the consequences that the people accepted for their faithfulness or disregard for the commandments.
5. The reading of Parshat BeChukotai during the weeks preceding Shavuot
Rav Soloveitchik’s insight also resolves another problem. The Talmud explains that Ezra established that before Shavuot we should read the portion of Parshat BeChukotai that describes the calamities that will befall the nation if it abandons the Torah. Ezra also established that a parallel Torah section in Parshat Ki Tavo should be read before Rosh HaShanah. The Talmud explains that the reason for this practice is “to end the year and its curses”. In other words, by reading the assigned text before each of these new years, we express the prayerful desire that all the curses and calamities of the past year will end with the conclusion of the year. In the coming year we will experience the blessings described by the Torah.
Of course this raises an obvious question. Rosh HaShanah marks the Torah calendar’s new year. In what sense is Shavuot the beginning of a new year? The Talmud addresses this issue. It explains that the Torah’s calendar includes more than one year. In the Torah, the advent of a new year is associated with judgment. Hashem passes judgment on some aspect of the affairs of the world. The number of “new years” corresponds to the number of occasions upon which some element of creation is placed in judgment. The date is defined as a new year because the judgment that is concluded will be carried out over the course of the ensuing twelve months. Of course, most issues are decided on Rosh HaShanah. However, on Shavuot, Hashem passes judgment over the produce of the orchards. He decides whether the harvest will be abundant or paltry.
6. Embarking upon a path of repentance
Rav Avraham Aba Hertsel (1850-1928) in his commentary Seftai Chachamim offers an interesting interpretation of the Talmud’s discussion. As explained above, Ezra’s enactment is an expression of our prayer that the tragedies that we have experienced in the past year should come to an end and that the coming year should be characterized by blessings. However, Maimonides explains that when a community experiences a tragedy, its members should remind themselves that our troubles are an expression of Hashem’s will. They are His response to our actions, attitudes, and behaviors. Maimonides adds that our recognition that our problems are a reflection of Hashem’s will and not merely chance events is essential to securing Hashem’s forgiveness or forbearance. Maimonides’ comments suggest that reading these sections at their appointed times is more than a prayerful expression. It is actually our confirmation of the sections’ assertion that the calamities that we have experienced are consequences of our behaviors and attitudes. This is an essential step in securing relief from our suffering. In other words, we are not merely expressing a prayer through our reading. We are taking action to bring an end to our distress. We are initiating a process of repentance.
7. The Torah readings and the rhythm of the calendar
Maimonides quotes the ruling of the Talmud. He lists various Torah sections that are assigned specific weeks of the year. He includes the two texts of calamities and adds other sections that are assigned specific weeks. For example, he notes that Parsaht Tzav is generally read prior to Pesach. Maimonides’ presentation suggests that the sections of the Torah are assigned to the weeks of the year in a manner that reflects the rhythm of the calendar. Through the weekly reading, the Torah’s message unfolds at a pace and in a manner that is attuned to the real-time events in the calendar.
Maimonides explains that Parshat Tzav is an appropriate portion to be read before Pesach. Rav Soloveitchik notes that our commentators have explained that this section includes laws that regulate the purging of cooking vessels that have absorbed a forbidden substance. This material is very relevant to the weeks prior to Pesach. During this period we are preparing to remove all chametz – leavened products – from our homes and we are preparing our cooking utensils for Pesach use. Many will require some variation of the purging described in the Torah reading.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that our parasha is appropriate for the weeks preceding Shavuot. Shavuot recalls and celebrates the Sinai Revelation. The blessings and calamities described in our parasha are the consequences of our observance or abandonment of the Torah. They are the conclusion of the covenant that Hashem made with His nation at Sinai and they bring to a close the Torah’s account of the Sinai Revelation. On Shavuot we recall Revelation and recommit ourselves to the covenant. It is fitting that as we prepare ourselves for this occasion we should review the substance of our covenant with Hashem.
8. The relevance of the Torah
The synchronization of the weekly Torah readings with the real-time progression of the calendar asserts the relevance of the Torah to our lives. The events described in the Torah and our observances throughout the course of the year should not be viewed as commemorations of ancient events. We are not just recalling tragic and glorious moments from the ancient past of our nation. Each event that we recall is a foundation for values and perspectives that inform our real-time behaviors and practices.
Shavuot does not commemorate Revelation as merely an important historical event. It calls upon us to renew our covenant with Hashem. It reminds us that our Torah is a revealed truth and not a human invention. It challenges us to apply its values and laws to our lives and guide ourselves based on its principles.