Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

We are how we live

Parshat Behukotai does not make for easy reading. It presents two options: Follow God’s will and be rewarded or betray God and bring on divine retribution. From a national vantagepoint, the people will be exile and dispersion among its enemies. Even so, God promised never to abandon His people despite the severity of these measures: “Yet even this too – when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them and I will not loathe them to put an end to them, to void My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. And I will remember for them the covenant of the first ones whom I brought from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations to be God for them, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 26:44-45)

The Sifra, the earliest rabbinic midrash on the Sefer Vayikra (2-3rd century Eretz Yisrael), read this complicated passage from the Torah having experienced the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonian exile (the destruction of the First Temple) and the Roman conquest (the destruction of the Second Temple). The rabbinic sages clearly understood the consequences of exile and its adverse effect on identity. They knew that minority status breeds assimilation. The above verse served for them as a means to frame this problem: [They asked:] And what remains of them (the exiled community of Jews) that they should not be rejected or loathed [by God]? Haven’t all of the goodly gifts which I (God) have given to them been taken away from them [as punishment]? Were it not for the Torah that has remained with them, there would be no difference between them and all of the other peoples. [For this reason] “I did not reject them” — in the days of Vespasian; nor did “I loathe them” — in the days of the Greeks; “to consume them and void My covenant with them” — in the days of Haman; “for I am the Lord their God” — in the days of Gog.” (adapted from Sifra Behukotai 8:10)

The authors of this midrash realized that Jews may be a “people” but that in itself did not distinguish them from the people where they were exiled. They looked like everyone else and consequently could easily blend into (assimilate) to their new surroundings. (see Shaye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness, chapter 2) This created a serious threat to Jewish national and religious continuity. (Yes, even in the 2-3rd century.) Only one thing really distinguished the Jew from his or her foreign environment — the Torah. It was the great unifier for all Jews no matter what they looked like. To put it another way, it is the life of Torah which distinguishes a Jew from others and which links Jews to each other.

Perhaps this message seems obvious, but even in rabbinic times, the sages felt compelled to remind their fellow Jews that if they truly treasure their identity, a life of Torah study and observance is where they should focus their energies.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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