Parshat Behukotai sets up a seemingly straightforward dichotomy between keeping mitzvot and getting reward, versus not keeping mitzvot and being punished. What’s striking is the ratio of the reward to punishment. While there are only a handful of verses promising reward, there are nearly three times as many verses describing the punishment. What’s more, the punishments are somewhat out of proportion to the potential rewards (e.g. getting a nice rainfall versus eating the flesh of one’s children).
Perhaps there is a sort of “Anna Karenina principle” at work here: all successful situations are similar in that they require a multitude of factors to be there and to work together to produce a positive result. When things go wrong, however, every adverse outcome is unique, with its own causes and consequences.
I think that there is an interesting detail in the parsha that perhaps casts this in a different light.
In the middle of enumerating some of the harshest punishments, God pledges to remember his covenant with Jacob, Izhak, and Abraham. Not only is the order of the forefathers reversed here, but there is an extra letter, a “vav,” which is added to Jacob’s name, making it the only time in Humash that Jacob’s name is spelled with a vav (there are 4 other instances in Tanah where this happens).
Rashi explains these unique occurrences in the text in typically cryptic fashion, such that the explanation is more puzzling than the initial irregularity. Rashi says that for every time Jacob’s name is spelled with a “vav,” the name of Eliyahu ha Navi is spelled without a “vav” (ie Eliyah). Indeed there are 5 instances of Eliyahu being called Eliyah and of Jacob’s name spelled with the extra “vav.” Rashi then says that what is happening is that Jacob is taking the letter (or sign; “ot” means both in Hebrew) from Eliyahu as a pledge (iravon) that he will come and proclaim the good tidings of the redemption of Jacob’s descendants.
There are dozens of ways to think about the text here, and to try to understand what Rashi is saying, but I want to think about it in the context of where it appears in Humash, in a passage that portends the darkest experience in Jewish history. What are Rashi, and the Midrash that he cites, trying to tell us about the Jewish experience and about redemption?
First of all, the letter or sign the Jacob borrows from Eliyahu is a particularly potent one. Vav not only looks like a staff or stick, but this letter actually appears at every corner of the Torah scroll column as a reminder of the vavim, or handles, that helped carry the Mishkan from place to place. So we can think of this as Jacob taking Eliyahu’s staff, in a sense, much like Tamar takes the staff of Yehuda (also as an iravon, incidentally).
We see in the Torah that a staff can be an instrument of working miracles (think Moshe’s staff for example), but it can also be a very practical tool that can help measure distances, build buildings like the Beit HaMikdash, and help to physically transport the Aron HaKodesh. It is interesting that if one looks for a contrast between the lives of Jacob and Eliyahu it is precisely this difference, between the prophetic and miraculous and the mundane and practical. Eliyahu is, after Moshe, the prophet par excellence, to the point that he essentially forces God to perform a miracle by pitting his word against the false prophets of baal. Jacob lives in a time when there is no prophesy. God does not even speak to people directly, not even once save for two dreams at the beginning and end of Jacob’s life. Jacob spends his life toiling in whatever work that he is in, with a dogged determination to get what’s his and count himself blessed.
I think that this act of passing the staff from Eliyahu back to Jacob, in anticipation of redemption at the darkest time in Jewish history, is telling us something interesting about what redemption means for Jews, which in turn helps explain the apparent discrepancy between the blessings and the punishments that befall us. Many religions have end-of-days prophecies and usually its something grand and otherworldly. If you look at eschatological prophecies in Judaism, however, they are more often than not remarkably mundane (e.g. having nice rainfall and gathering your harvest; cattle grazing peacefully; being able to defend yourself from enemies; old men and women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem (Zeharia); Jewish couples will get married in Jerusalem (Jeremayah), etc).
The vision that we, and more importantly God, has for Jewish redemption is remarkably modest in its goals and perhaps also in its implementation. Rather than seeking to conquer the world with our ideas or by the sword, we, as Jacob, lay claim only to what is rightfully ours no more no less. The unprecedented message of the Torah is that this is actually the ultimate blessing.