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Naomi Graetz

Are We To Be Cursed Forever? Parshat Bechukotai

Screenshot of Moses from The Jews are Coming

Many of us are familiar with the fact that our being in the promised land is contingent. Two to three times a day when we recite the Shema, we read in the second verse:

And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord, your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care that your heart is not lured away, and you turn astray and worship other alien gods and bow down to them. For then God’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close down the heavens so that there will be no rain/dew and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gives you.

In the Tanakh we are warned time and again that the promise depends on our behavior. If we do not behave properly, we will either perish or be chased out of our land. But this week’s parshat behukotai, which ends the book of Va-yikrah (Leviticus) is over the top. It starts out with the same conditions that we know from the Shema:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit….you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; … no sword shall cross your land. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword (Leviticus 26: 3-13).

And then a few verses down after all the good things (which take up 10 verses), we have a list of curses that seem to go on and on if we are not obedient. It is extremely painful to read the following list—and unfortunately, I am the Torah reader this week and will have to decide if I want to read the list sotto voce, as is the tradition in some congregations, or to read it out loud as a warning today—a political message, to what might happen to us in the near future, if we do not mend our ways. Our sages too had problems with reading it aloud and suggested that “The section of curses must not be broken up but must all be read by one person” (M. Megillah 3:6), which I guess is going to be me!

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant,  I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon youconsumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues. And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.

It goes on and on and I hope it is as painful for you to read as it is to me:

I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. They shall decimate you, and your roads shall be deserted. And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me, I too will remain hostile to you: I in turn will smite you sevenfold for your sins. I will bring a sword against you to wreak vengeance for the covenant; and if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied. But if, despite this, you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me, I will act against you in wrathful hostility; I, for My part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands, and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes. I will spurn you. I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors. I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it.

One more terrible passage to read–keep going, and be horrified!

And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword. You shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies, but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you. Those of you who survive shall be heartsick over their iniquity in the land of your enemies; more, they shall be heartsick over the iniquities of their forebears; and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forebears, in that they trespassed against Me, yea, were hostile to Me (Leviticus 26:14-40).

After reading this–and if you skipped, painful as it is, go back and read every word–we have to take a deep breath. In light of what happened on October 7th, on Simchat Torah, we wonder if this passage is not prophetic in some way–it certainly is applicable. On the other hand, the idea of blaming the victim is always abhorrent to me–especially when there are victims on both sides. This does not absolve us if we behave immorally. But surely there is “overkill” in God’s punishment of his chosen people.

THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

I’m on a mailing list which sends out a blog almost daily. The other day, there was an interesting take on why Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students all died in one day.

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time, because they did not treat each other with respect (B. Yevamot 62b).

According to another tradition, when his wife Rachel came out in ragged clothing to greet him after 24 years of study, his disciples tried to push her aside and that is why they were punished by God. The writer found it difficult to blame God and found a medical reason for why they were all wiped out in one day. Unlike the writer of that daily blog, I have no problem blaming God for man’s suffering. And I am in good company—starting with Psalm 22:2 (Why have You forsaken me– אלי אלי למה עזבתני), the Books of Job and Lamentations. It seems as if God is too quick on the trigger, when we are unfaithful, or do not observe the deity’s commandments. Our God seems to be bipolar—on the one hand the deity is the God of compassion (rachamim) and on the other hand the deity is the God of unflinching justice (din). Recently, it appears as if the God of din is out there much more than the God of rachamim.

NOT TAKING OURSELVES TOO SERIOUSLY

I am a big fan of the satirical program, The Jews are Coming (Hayehudim Bayim). They have just started their sixth season and there are some very strong critiques of our country, in the guise of biblical tales. The story of the aftermath of Dinah’s rape and the savagery of Simon and Levi—which could have been avoided if they had listened to the calming influence of their father; the story of Samson, who represents the citizens of the South, being neglected by the government in power–the Judeans, so that he has to fight the Philistines/Hamas with a lion’s jaw. On the other hand, there is a very humane Moses telling the people that we are strong and should keep the faith, and unlike our present-day leaders, apologizing for having castigated them in the past. Perhaps the best of these satires is that of Herod the Great, who, planning his funeral on his deathbed, is concerned about his place in history, totally unaware that the people hate him and will not mourn him when he dies. There are other satirical programs, and that we are still able to satirize ourselves and our government, without interference, in a democracy, gives me hope that things may change and that our tradition is not written in stone. Unfortunately, intransigence seems to be the word of the day, with neither side willing to compromise, both in intra-national  and inter-national affairs. The Deity of strict justice–din, seems to be influencing too many of us today as we take sides.

This is not the only place in the bible where we are cursed: the earth is cursed, Cain is cursed, Canaan (the grandson of Noah) is cursed. There is even a worse list, if possible in Deuteronomy 28. In our parsha, the word ארור (cursed) does not appear, but in Deuteronomy there is a litany of curses preceded by the word arur (ארור).

You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. (Deuteronomy 28:18-19).

One of the reasons given is that:

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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