If Only…

Since October 7th there are occasions that are difficult to mark and Torah portions that are excruciating. The rawness and the details are too familiar and painful. They do not speak of potential realities rather in an alarming manner of actual ones. 

This is the sense as we read Bechukotai, which details the horrendous consequences of what will occur; “if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments..” (26:14). The name of the portion evokes the second word of the opening verse;

אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,

Reading it again for the first time, particularly with all we are carrying, it occurs to me that perhaps a more appropriate and candid title should have been Im, the first word, which occurs so often in the portion that it is almost dizzying. The If, the Im, implies a cause and effect and frighteningly the very overt promise by God who will actively bring this inexplicable horror on His people, on His Children if they stray from His commandments. It has always been impossible to grasp, as Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto in his majestic work, Sacred Fire, together with countless others remind us.

Our reality seems to be a total breakdown of the Im, the cause and effect, the contract between the people and those who are supposedly responsible for their safety. We are still reeling from the way that all assurances, understandings, protocol was totally absent. Our trauma is so intense as to wish if only there was indeed an if…only. 

The term itself, Im, all too often ushers dramatic if not extreme ordeals. The first time it appears in the Torah is esoteric, yet, has never ceased to determine our reality. In the opening chapters of Bereishit, both Hevel and Cain have given offerings of their produce to God. Without explanation, Hevel’s offering is accepted, whereas that of Cain was not. Understandably Cain is distressed, “and his face fell”. God asks,4:6; 

 וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־קָ֑יִן לָ֚מָּה חָ֣רָה לָ֔ךְ וְלָ֖מָּה נָפְל֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ׃

“Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen?

And then in what must be one of the most abstruse verses in the Bible

הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשׁל־בּֽוֹ׃

Surely, if you do right,

There is uplift.

But if you do not do right

Sin couches at the door;

Its urge is toward you,

Yet you can be its master.”

In as much as we do not understand this obscure utterance, it also provided no comfort to Cain, who then inexplicably killed his brother Hevel. This first case of murder tragically invokes the closing line of Natan Alterman’s poem The Silver Platter; והשאר יסופר בתולדות ישראל  and the rest, yet to tell, Will be penned in the Chronicles of Israel.

The first appearance of the term in the Book of Shemot is no less harrowing. Pharaoh orders the midwifes with the following directive 1:16;

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖וא וָחָֽיָה׃

… “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”

It is as (the) if, is the harbinger of tragedy…

The two chapters that make up this short portion, end in an almost identical manner,- the closing of Chapter 26; 

אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֮ וְהַתּוֹרֹת֒ אֲשֶׁר֙ נָתַ֣ן יְהֹוָ֔ה בֵּינ֕וֹ וּבֵ֖ין בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ 

These are the laws, rules, and instructions that God established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, with the Israelite people.

The closing of chapter 27 and that of the Book of Vayikra;

אֵ֣לֶּה הַמִּצְות אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּהַ֖ר סִינָֽי׃

These are the commandments that God gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.

Might we suggest that these extraordinary Sinai moments with the people of Israel offer an alternative way of reading and understanding the Im. Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us the term עם Am– people is from עם – Imwith, denoting togetherness and solidarity. For the solace we all so deserve can we with perhaps unsanctioned temerity, read the Im with an Ayin, עם , not if, rather, with, togetherness. A relief from the fraught connotations of if, to the comfort of with, the bond that defines the relationship we merit and the people we must be. 

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Shalom Orzach is a senior educator and consultant for the iCenter and serves on faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He was a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, following which he was the Executive Director for Jewish Renewal at the UJIA in England. Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion.
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