As we conclude Leviticus, the Torah takes a detour from the numerous commandments of the Tabernacle and Land of Israel. Unlike just about every other weekly portion, there is no introduction. G-d opens unannounced by a simple axiom of history: If you follow His ways, things will be good — very good. And if you don’t, expect the opposite.
And the verses that follow paint an idyllic picture of prosperity and peace, a people under G-d’s wings. Then comes the bad part, a people who reject the Almighty: This is a multi-stage process. First, the Jews marginalize Torah study. They’re just too busy. That extends to observing the commandments. Same reason.
Finally, the Jews begin to resent their divine responsibility. They are repulsed by the commandments. Their refusal is now based on principle. Soon, they try to stop others from observance and hate those who don’t obey.
G-d’s response is not long in coming. The enemies of Israel return to kill and pillage; the security and safety are gone. The Temple is destroyed. The rains stop and nothing grows.
And if you treat Me as happenstance, and you do not wish to listen to Me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins: [Leviticus 26:21]
The Hebrew word for “happenstance” is keri. The commentators offer different translations to this rarely used word. The oldest of them is Onkelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic some 2,000 years ago. His definition is “tough.” In other words, adds Rashi, the people have hardened their hearts so they will not return to G-d.
It would take some effort to stay away from G-d after His miracles in and after Egypt. The Jews would need to forget their great victories that conquered the Land of Canaan despite overwhelming odds. They would need to turn blessings into curses, saints into sinners, enemies into friends.
Still, this has been Jewish history. Shlomo Ben Eliezer Lippman was a rabbi and ritual slaughterer in 19th Century Poland, where Jews could not afford to walk straight or look ahead without fear. By 1800, he had completed a commentary on the medieval sage Avraham Ibn Ezra called Avi Ezer. The Avi Ezer often strayed from commentary and brought novel explanations of the Scriptures. In our Torah portion, Behukotai, the Avi Ezer links sin and punishment. The punishment, he says, is the flip side of sin.
“For all of the punishment that the Almighty visits on man for his past sin, the punishment is similar to that of the sin…so that he will know the truth that this is not coincidental, rather a hand that touched him.”
The proof for this can be found in the news cycle. Remember the movie mogul from Queens who rubbed shoulders with the richest and most powerful in America? Remember, the awards they gave, the cream of Hollywood that gushed? And just when he thought he had made it, remember how he was brought down by the very women he promised to help in exchange for sexual favors? Remember the politicians who took his money and disappeared once he was fell? Remember his beautiful wife who walked away?
How about the brilliant kid from Coney Island who rose from a college dropout to the world of the super-rich? His entire career was to lure the super-rich with sex and lies, directed by the White House and intelligence community. And when the curtain fell, he fell with it. All his so-called friends denied they ever knew him. The charities he funded apologized for not being aware of his illegal activities.
And the Torah repeats the word keri over and over. The man has been kicked in the groin but won’t change his ways. He remains defiant toward the heavens but anxious regarding his neighbors and colleagues. Eventually, he understands that G-d is tougher.
You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat. I will demolish your edifices and cut down your sun idols; I will make your corpses [fall] upon the corpses of your idols, and My Spirit will reject you. [Leviticus 26:29-30]
The curses are relentless: destruction, desolation, exile. Now scattered around the globe, the enemies will pursue you and you will be powerless. There will be nothing left of the sweet taste of sin.
Was it worth it?
Behind the scenes, however, G-d prepares for the redemption of Israel. The giveaway is in the next verse. The cities of Israel have been destroyed; the Jews are gone. But the conquerors now struggle with a desolate land. They cannot live there for long, and regardless of their military might will soon be replaced. That, too, is Jewish history.
This was the vision of the prophet Daniel: The Jews have been driven out, but G-d does not let another people replace them. This took place after the destruction of the First Temple and Second Temple. It leaves the door open to repentance at any time. As Moshe Ben Nachman, the Ramban, put it:
“Our land does not accept our enemies.”