“I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you;
and I will maintain My covenant with you.” (Leviticus: 26:9)
Parashat B’chukotai opens with the classic Biblical morality of reward and punishment: God will bless the Israelites for following the commandments and will curse them for not following. The admonition comes with a twist, though, that reverberates through Jewish life and thought to this day.
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012; Reform rabbi and commentator) explains ancient societies believe reward and/or punishment comes in response to the behavior of the king (or pharaoh). But B’chukotai declares, “Im b’chukotai teileichu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru lalechet bahem…If you (plural) follow my laws and faithfully follow my commandments…” (Lev. 26:3) By referring to the Israelites in the plural, B’chukotai reframes the burden of responsibility: reward or punishment is the result of the behavior of the entire nation. Now every Jew is “on the hook” for the people’s well-being.
Collective responsibility is appealing: as long as there are enough do-gooders, society prospers. But there’s an empirical problem, because the world just doesn’t work that way: righteous people aren’t always rewarded and evil people aren’t always punished. This is why centuries after B’chukotai, the rabbis invent the idea of olam haba, the eternal world to come. This allows a belief in divine retribution (collectively or individually) while acknowledging the consequences of behavior we see in this world may not represent God’s final judgment. And the communal good remains an incentive for individual moral and ethical behavior. It should only happen.
B’chukotai is the final parasha in Leviticus. An Ashkenazic, or European, tradition is to stand and say chazak, chazak v’nitchazek, be strong, be strong, and let us summon up our strength, at the end of the reading.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom