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Parashat B’har-B’chukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

“I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God; I, the Lord.” (Leviticus 26:45)

Parashat B’chukotai contains a list of blessings for following the Torah’s commandments and a (much longer) list of curses for failing to do so. The images are hard to relate to, since they are derived, mostly, from an agricultural society. One verse, though, is the source of a concept central to Jewish life today: peoplehood.

B’chukotai describes the Israelites in constant, punishing fear of their enemies as a consequence of disobedience: “With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword…” (Lev. 26:37) The rabbis infer from this verse the concept of collective identity and collective destiny: “…this teaches kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, all Israel are responsible for one another. “ (Babylonian Talmud Shevuot 39b)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948- ; former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth) wonders: if the Torah is replete with reminders of collective reward and punishment, why do the rabbis need a prooftext for the concept of peoplehood, and why choose this one emphasizing defeat and fear? Sacks answers: the Israelites experience Biblical life as one community, in one place, under one rule. Collective identity and responsibility is a given. Once the Temple is destroyed and the Jews exiled from one another, though, only a sense of connection to God and to one another through the brit, or covenant, can transcend geography and sustain a sense of peoplehood. So, the rabbis transform the curse into a blessing.

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

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