Parshat Behukotai: Destruction, repentance, restoration

Why two chapters of such horrific imprecations and why is our Leviticus chapter mitigated by a promise of Divine remembrance and redemption while the Deuteronomy chapter has no such respite?

May 15, 2014 17:54
4 minute read.
Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan;; (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)


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‘And I shall remember My Covenant with Jacob and also My Covenant with Isaac and also My Covenant with Abraham shall I remember, and the Land shall I remember…. But despite all this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I shall neither hate them nor despise them to destroy them, to abrogate My Covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God’ (Lev. 26:42 – 44)

Our Torah never promised us a rose garden; the sacred Scriptures mince no words in describing the excruciating persecutions and punishments which will pursue us if (or rather when) we fail to heed its exhortations, as we see in this week’s reading.

We can only identify with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman, who, when confronted with the order of expulsion of the Jews from the town of Anatevka, looks heavenwards and cynically decries, “I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

And to add insult to injury, in addition to this chapter of curses (tochehot) in Leviticus, there is an additional and much longer litany of imprecations in Deuteronomy (chapter 28, verses 15-68). Moreover, whereas the Leviticus tocheha provides a silver lining to the cloud guaranteeing that God will remember His Patriarchal Covenants as well as His patrimonial land and will never completely destroy us as a people by abrogating His Covenant with us, such a “happy ending” does not appear in the Deuteronomy tocheha.

Why two chapters of such horrific imprecations and why is our Leviticus chapter mitigated by a promise of Divine remembrance and redemption while the Deuteronomy chapter has no such respite?

The great biblical commentator Nahmanides (1194 – 1270) suggests that the first set of curses refers to the destruction of the First Temple and its aftermath of Babylonian captivity (685 to 516 BCE), whereas the second set of curses refers to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the subsequent scattering of the Jewish Exile throughout the world.

My revered teacher and mentor Rav J.B. Soloveitchik explains that the first destruction led to a forced exile to Babylon for only 50 years in duration, with the restoration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem barely 20 years later.

No wonder the Bible mentions God’s remembrance of the Covenant and His refusal to completely destroy His nation within the very context of the first destruction. Rabbi Soloveitchik goes on to say that the second destruction in Deuteronomy also has a promise of restoration, but it comes two chapters after the tocheha with an extremely important rider attached to it:

“It will be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you, that you shall return to your heart from amongst all of the nations to which the Lord your God has scattered you” (Deut. 30:1).

The restoration after the second destruction is dependent upon Israel’s repentance!

The first destruction was at an early juncture of Jewish history when we were still enamored with idolatry and before we had really developed our oral law. God was still taking responsibility for us, almost like He took responsibility for us in taking us out of the Egyptian exile. Here too, God remembers His Covenant, and God guarantees that He will step into history to ensure that we will never be destroyed as a people.

After the second destruction, however, God expects much more from us, His partners in history. He will not effectuate our return single-handedly; He expects us to be the initiators. He expects us to return first to the Land of Israel from our many lands of dispersion and then to the Torah of Israel (Deut. 30:1–3). Once we initiate our own purification, then the Almighty will complete the process.

This second restoration will be much longer in the coming than the first was, and so it is in Deuteronomy. It comes two chapters after the imprecations. It assumes that we will take a leadership position among the nations, “exalted above all the nations in fame, in renown and in glory... a holy people to the Lord...” (Deut. 26:19) to bring the entire nation to repentance in the realization of one God of peace, compassionate morality and justice. This Covenant will then include the entire nation, “Those standing with us before the Lord our God and those not with us this day before the Lord our God.”

This third Covenant also written on stones from the Jordan River with words of universal morality speaking to the generic human being (ish rather than Ivri or Yehudi) and translated into the 70 languages of the proverbial 70 nations.

Hence this covenant will enable all of the wicked of the earth to return to God, to accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingship and to perfect the world in the Kingship of the Divine (Alenu Prayer). We anxiously await the fulfillment of this Covenant, the beginning of which we are experiencing today in Israel reborn! 

Shabbat shalom

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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