Gidon Rothstein
Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis, Behukotai: Many Roads to a Better Life

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Strength in Numbers

Before the Torah launches into the tochacha, the warning of what will happen if the Jewish people stubbornly refuse to fulfill Hashem’s Will, it briefly speaks of the good that comes our way when serving Hashem properly and fully. One of the promises is victory in war, which 26;8 expresses by saying that five of us will chase a hundred and a hundred will chase ten thousand.

As Rashi notes, the proportions are off—if five chase a hundred, twenty times as many as that should chase two thousand, not ten thousand. His answer is that there’s an economy of scale, that a larger group can do more than a smaller one proportionally, not just in absolute terms. I would have expected him to say that militarily—five soldiers, with all the success possible, won’t be as formidable a fighting force as a hundred men, even proportionally. A hundred fighting men are an army; five are a small group.

Rashi instead phrases it in terms of our fulfilling the Torah. Five people who keep the Torah will produce a result that’s less than one twentieth of that achieved by a hundred who keep the Torah. The lesson is the same in either case, except that Rashi has taken for granted (as we might not notice) that victory in war depends, maybe solely, on the people having previously upheld the Torah. Five such people can beat a hundred, and a hundred can beat ten thousand.

Because victory is not from strength or might or technological prowess, it’s from Hashem.

The Steps to Success and Destruction

Rashi picks up on seven phrases in 26;14-15 (commenting on each phrase), where the Torah describes what can bring the punishments it is about to list in detail. He assumes that each phrase signals a different step on a road away from Hashem’s service, and then sees the Torah’s repeat references to punishing us seven like our sins as retribution for these steps.

For Rashi, the seven are: 1) not toiling at Torah, the point of which toil is to know Chazal’s derivations from Scripture; 2) a failure to keep the Torah, the result of the lack of toil, 3) to be disgusted by those who do keep the Torah, 4) to hate the Sages, 5) to stop others from keeping the Torah, 6) to deny that Hashem commanded the mitzvot, and 7) to deny Hashem.

While some of these seven are in fact sins, some are not, themselves, technically categorized as sin. The first step, for example, is a failure to work as hard as one can or ought to absorb Chazal’s way of reading Scriptue. It is those readings that expand the Torah into the lived system we know today. Without it, Rashi is saying, the disservice we do ourselves is not limited to the ignorance we accept; it goes further, leading us down the path to much worse.

From that failure to learn well, for Rashi, we end up not observing the Torah. He may mean only that if we don’t know the rules, we cannot keep them. Since his first standard was toil, however, I wonder whether he might have meant something more subtle, that without a great effort, we won’t immerse ourselves in Chazal’s world, we won’t make their world fully our own, which will necessarily diminish our observance. Not purely because we won’t know, but because we won’t have made it second nature.

To me, that’s what explains the next step, being disgusted by those who do keep the Torah. It might just be that since we don’t know what’s required, we’ll see those more punctilious than ourselves as unnecessarily stringent. I think it’s also because they’ll seem alien to us, because we’ll not realize the sources that support that conduct.

When we’re not part of that world, and are put off by it, we’ll maybe be put off by those who “created” that world, Chazal themselves, Rashi’s next step. The more that bothers us, the more we might take action to change it, by getting people not to waste their time on “silly” rituals.

But the cognitive dissonance of denying mitzvot will be too much, since we know Hashem commanded them. The next step is to deny Hashem as a whole, freeing the people involved to feel convinced they have found the truth.

This is not the place to pursue each step, but it is a remarkable Rashi in that, to me, it rings true even today as a series of steps that many take on their journey away from religiosity. It starts with a failure to engage the system for itself, to labor at inserting and immersing oneself in that system. It’s downhill from there.

Desolate Israel

26;32 tells us that Hashem will render Israel waste, exiling us to other lands. The upside of that punishment is now a matter of historical record—which is always cool, when a verse predicts something it has no human right to. When it comes true, it is another nice reminder that when we say we believe the Torah is divine, we really mean it, and the Torah bears it out.

In this case, the promise was that when we were kicked out, the land would be desolate, which Rashi (on the words והשמותי אני) reads as saying that no one else would be able to settle it fruitfully and successfully. In fact, from the destruction of the second Temple (or, perhaps, the end of the Bar-Kochba rebellion), while Israel wasn’t completely empty, it was much emptier than it has been over the last hundred years.

If we can be cautiously optimistic that this resettling of Israel will keep going until Mashiach comes, it will mean this verse got it exactly right—Israel only flowers and bears significant settling when Jews are the main force in it.

This might be protective, in that if other people are there, we would have a harder time returning (as is true now, even though the land was largely empty, we still struggle with how to deal with those who had been living there when we came back. Imagine how much harder the problem would be if there had been a full population of such people already there in the 1880s, when shivat Zion, the return to Zion, got underway.)

Sometimes desolation is a gift and a blessing.  The challenges we have now with those who claim to have preceded us there, would have been multiplied had there been more. As the first Rashi we saw here told us, a larger group would have had more impact even than its numbers; a tenfold greater population perhaps would have given us more than tenfold greater problems, had Hashem not helped us by keeping Israel mostly uninhabited while we were serving our exile.

Bankruptcy Protection, Beit HaMikdash Style

27;8 envisions someone who promises a donation to the Beit HaMikdash that he or she cannot actually fulfill (why people do that is always a question; perhaps the person miscalculated, reached too far, or had a financial setback after making this commitment; in addition, there might be room for a Torah scholar to oversee a hatarat nedarim, a releasing of the promise to give this money, but that’s not the scenario with which Rashi is dealing).

Rashi records halachah’s understanding that if the person has promised more than he has, he is stood before a kohen, who evaluates what he can pay. On the words על פי אשר תשיג, Rashi says that the kohen figures out what possessions he has, leaves him with a bed and beddings, and the tools of his trade (which might be valuable—a cab driver, e.g., would be left with his cab including, I think, his medallion).

Because if one bankrupts oneself by offering money to the Mikdash, the Torah doesn’t want to leave that person destitute. We leave them with the minimal items they need, not only to live, but also to be able to support themselves.

Sticking to Our Word

At the end of the parsha (and of the whole book—the last piece of what tradition calls Torat Kohanim, the laws of the priesthood), the Torah warns about temurah, substituting one animal for one already promised to the Beit HaMikdash. Rambam, at the end of his codification of these laws, suggests these rules were to protect against the temptation to offer a lesser animal to Hashem, to keep the original better animal for oneself.

But the Torah also prohibits substituting a better animal. For Rambam, that’s just part of the whole picture—since most people would be substituting worse animals, the Torah ruled out all substitutions. Commenting on 27;33, the words לא יבקר, Rashi contrasts it to 12;11, which spoke about giving the best to fulfill our vows. To forestall our thinking that only the best is worthy of being given to Hashem, the Torah here tells us not to try to make those distinctions, to realize that sanctity comes to whatever we sanctify—that which can be offered as sacrifice, for sacrifice, that which cannot, will be used for other purposes.

It’s a reminder both that we have to keep our word when it comes to Hashem and also (perhaps more so, because it’s less obvious) that we do not completely control our experience of Hashem, or even our experience of how we make offerings to Hashem. Not only do we get what we get and don’t get upset, we give what we give, and, once given, have no chance to try to make it better.  That’s a closing message of the book that talks about our relationship with Hashem at the Mikdash—we do our best, but once we’ve done it, we cannot always fix it or improve. Sometimes, it is what it is, right now, and our aim to do better will have to come next time.

As will any aim I have to do a better job on presenting Rashi’s ideas on Sefer Vayikra, because that’s it for this time, and we’re on to the book of Bamidbar.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.