Behukotai: On walking between blessing and curse

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “He who has a greater bond of love for the land of Israel and makes a greater effort to settle the holy land is blessed before others and is closer to completeness.”  What is it about the land of Israel that holds such blessing for the Jew?

The prism of blessings and curses in this week’s parsha of “reproof” offers a profound perspective from which to consider this question.  God opens with the blessings: “If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them,” then all manner of material good will follow.  Though the verses refer only to material blessing, Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 9:1) makes clear that the material prosperity is granted only to further spiritual growth.  Indeed, God concludes the blessings: “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be My people.” In short: if we walk in God’s ways, God will walk with us.

In contradistinction, God warns: “But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant,” then all manner of evil will ensue.  Interestingly, the verb “walk” is used seven times in this passage of curses, each time in conjunction with the word “happenstance”.  To understand, Rav Hirsch (Leviticus 26:23) explains that the operative principle underlying the curses is, simply, nature:

From its very beginning, Israel’s historical birth was not the result of the combination of the working of the usual causes which, in world history, have produced new nations. … The “nation” Israel is simply an historical creative “Let there be” act of God.  If Israel trifles away the mission for which God made it into a nation, then God has only to turn away His Face, His special particular providence and guidance, and by itself [Israel] falls to ruin in the midst of all the enemy elements which throughout the history of the world have worked against it. … Its downfall would be merely the results of the given causes in the natural course of events.

As such, when Israel walks happenstance, abandoning itself to nature, God, in kind, abandons Israel to nature.  Could not the seven fold usage of “walking happenstance” be hinting at this very notion – the number seven reminding us of the very nature that was created in seven days?[1]

Now if the words “walk” and “happenstance” serve as a latent theme in the text, then the word “land”, with its twenty-one occurrences, is clearly the leitmotif underlying the chapter’s forty-six verses of blessings and curses.  And well it should be, for the land of Israel is the very basis of the blessed life desired by God for Israel, and exile from it, the ultimate curse.  Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook explains that living in the land of Israel is “the fundamental prerequisite for Am Yisrael to be able to function as a nation.”  The Zohar (Vaera 29b) expresses the idea poetically: “When other nations rule over her [Israel], the voice departs from her and she becomes dumb.”

The Jewish people’s mission, as expressed by the prophet Isaiah (42:6), is to be: “A light unto the nations.”  This is ultimately accomplished by being an object lesson of national success.  It was for this purpose that God gave His Torah – as a guide book to fulfilling national mission.  And thus it is essential that the Jews apply God’s Torah to every aspect of life.  In the words of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits:

Judaism looks upon life as the raw material which has to be shaped in conformity with the spiritual values contained in the Bible….  The teachings of the Torah can therefore reveal their real sense only when there is a concrete reality to which they are applied.  Judaism is a great human endeavor to fashion the whole of life, every part and every moment of it, in accordance with standards that have their origin in unchallengeable authority.  Its aim is not merely to cultivate the spirit, but infuse prosaic, everyday existence with the spirit.  (Essential Essays, pp. 160-1)

All of this becomes academic if the people are not in charge of the institutions which shape the character of the society.  Again Rabbi Berkovits’ words, written prior to the founding of the State of Israel in an essay entitled “On the Return to Jewish National Life,” are incisive:

The great spiritual tragedy of the exile consists in the breach between Tora and life, for exile means the loss of a Jewish-controlled environment….  It is incorrect to speak, as it is often done among Jews, of the conflict between Judaism and modern life.  For as yet there is no modern Jewish life. (pp. 162)

This is why it so essential that the people of Israel do everything in their power to maintain the nation in its homeland.  And this is why, according to the Talmud (Sukkah 52b), God “regrets” that the Jews are exiled – for they simply cannot fulfill their mission which is ultimately His mission.  And this is why our chapter of reproof concludes with the God’s promise, “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42).  The covenant with the Patriarchs – the mission of the Jewish people – is inextricably bound with the land.

The chapter of blessings and curses encapsulates our covenantal relationship in the starkest of terms.  If we uphold the covenant, raising ourselves above the natural world, we connect with the purpose of the Creator, and by extension, we connect with the Creator Himself.  In contrast, if we disregard the covenant, if we seek out our own purposes, we mire ourselves in the morass of nature.

Choosing to live by the covenant is called “walking” with God – living with purpose – and that is the blessing.  As a result, not only does God shower us with material good, He walks among us – as the blessings concludes, “And I will walk (hit’halachti) among you.”  But this walking is not like the “walking” mentioned in the rest of the chapter which uses the simple verb form holech.  The meaning of this rare instance of the word walk (hit’halachti) can be learned from the first time it is used: “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking (mit’halech) in the garden” (Genesis 3:8).  Nachmanides explains this to “indicate a revelation of the Divine Presence.”  Similarly then, living by the covenant is ultimately rewarded by the very revelation of God Himself.

Choosing to live without the covenant is called “walking happenstance” with God.  It is life characterized by the aimless pursuits that man, from time immemorial, has tried to fill his days.  It is an accursed life that the existentialists decried as “absurd”.  Albert Camus lamented, “Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.”  That is the ultimate curse.  But lest one think that the only consequence of purposelessness is ephemeral, God warns that there are, naturally, physical consequences as well.

In conclusion, when Rav Kook said that those who exhibit a greater love for the land of Israel are closer to completion, he was expressing the notion that one’s love of the land is simply a reflection of one’s deep desire to fulfill the purpose of Creation.  For, while many lands may be suitable for other nations to fulfill their purpose in creation, Israel’s purpose can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel (Vayikra Rabba 13:2).

[1] Interestingly, the number seven appears explicitly in the text of curses when God says that He will punish the people, “seven times” for their sins.  The commentators give varying explanations for this number: Rashi (26:18): for seven sins; Rashbam: expression for “many”; Ibn Ezra: a complete number; Hizkuni: for the violation of Shmitta (seventh year).  Clearly the number begs for explanation and clearly there is no consensus.  As such, I suggest that the number seven merely refers to the consequences that are part and parcel of nature created in seven days.  That is, when God says, “I will smite you seven times for your sins”, the meaning is, “I will smite you through the course of nature for your sins.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at