Judaism: Mundane Miracles
With the double parashah of Behar-Bekhukkotay we complete the Book of Leviticus. Torat Kohanim (the Law-book of the Priests), as it was traditionally called, is about to end, and the Book of Numbers is about to begin. Though today we are most familiar with the name Bamidbar (“In the Desert”), the traditional name was Chumash ha-Pekuddim (“the Book of Numbering”), because of its numbering of the Children of Israel in the opening chapters and again in Chapter 26.
Leviticus is almost entirely legislative, and Numbers combines legislative with historic narrative. We can see the opening passages of Parashat Bekhukkotay as bridging between these two themes. Parashat Bekhukkotay begins with a legal-historical overview of the Jewish nation:
“If you will walk in My decrees and keep My mitzvot and do them, then I will give you rains in their appropriate seasons…but if you do not listen to Me and do not do all these mitzvot, and if you get fed up with My decrees and if your souls feel disgusted with My judgments, not doing all My mitzvot and violating My Covenant, then I will do the same to you…” (Leviticus 26:3-16).
The Torah’s depiction of the blessings that G-d promises us as a result of keeping His Torah (Leviticus 26:4-13) is an idyllic description of the halcyon days in the best of times under a few of the Judges, later under King David and King Solomon, and a few – too few – of the better kings of Judea.
Conversely, the Torah’s depiction of the curses that await us as a result of transgressing His Torah (verses 14-45) is a frighteningly accurate and precise description of Jewish history from the dark days towards the end of the Judean monarchy, through the most horrific atrocities of Babylonian invasion and occupation and subsequent exile, through the more horrific atrocities of later Roman invasion and occupation and subsequent exile, and ending up with the return to the Land of Israel.
G-d uses a strange expression here several times: “If you walk with Me ‘keri’…” (Leviticus 26:21, 23, 27, 40), then, He promises, “I will walk with you ‘keri’…” (vs. 24, 28, 41). Many translations render this “contrary” – “if you go contrary to Me… I will go contrary to you”. This follows the Targum Onkelos, who translates “keri” into Aramaic as “kashyu” (“stiff-neckedness, recalcitrance”).
Rashi, the Yalkut Shimoni (Bekhukkotay, 674), the Aruch ha-Shulchan (Orach Chayim 191:5), and the Mishnah Berurah (191:5) see “keri” as a cognate of “mikreh” (“temporarily, occasionally, irregularly, haphazardly”), hence: If you only keep the mitzvot occasionally or sporadically, then these punishments will be the result.
The Targum Yonatan renders “keri” into Aramaic as “ara’i” (“happenstance, chance”), hence: If you consider that all your fortunes and misfortunes are merely coincidence, then these punishments will be the result. The Rashbam, the Ibn Ezra, the Malbim (here and in his Commentary to Daniel 9:11), the Kli Yakar (Commentary to Leviticus 21:18), the Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed, Section 3 Chapter 36; Epistle to Yemen), and Rabbeinu Yonah (The Gates of Repentance, Second Gate, Paragraph 2) all follow Targum Yonatan’s understanding.
This has some very serious – yet also very comforting – implications. The Jew must never see anything as mere coincidence. Everything that happens has a reason or reasons and has consequences. Whether for good or for bad, the Jew is constrained to believe that everything is part of G-d’s greater design for the world.
Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Russia, England, and Israel, 1865-1935), the doyen of religious Zionism, gave this practical expression by his spelling of the word “history”. Modern Hebrew has adopted the word “historiya”, and as with most imported words, the letter “t” is transliterated as a “tet”. Rabbi Kook, however, would spell “historiya” with a “tav”, denoting “hester Y-h” (“the hidden secrets of G-d”).
History is not random chance: it is directed by G-d, usually unnoticed and hidden. For times of trouble and grief, this can be wonderfully comforting: there is a reason for our suffering, even if we cannot see and understand the reason at the time.
This also has practical halakhic ramifications. The Mishnah tells us that “on hearing good tidings one recites the Blessing, ‘Blessed be He Who is good and bestows good’; on hearing bad tidings one recites the Blessings, ‘Blessed be the True Judge’” (Brachot 9:2). This is the halakhah in practice (Rambam, Laws of Blessings 10:3; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 222:1-4; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 59:1-3).
In the tochachah (“admonition”) in Parashat Bekhukkotay, G-d tells us directly that the procession of history, the good and the bad, is not random happenstance. It is all under His control.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) notes that the tochakhah begins with seemingly natural calamities – sickness; enemy incursions (quite natural for a small country at the crossroads of three continents, a vital trade-route for every empire); unproductive ground (inevitable in certain years); increasing attacks by wild animals (an obvious result of lack of food); and famine, so severe that “you will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat” (Leviticus 26:29).
So to speak: if you choose to see the unfolding events of history as random happenstance, then I will withdraw My protection and My providence from you, and allow events to proceed “naturally”, randomly, with no Guide.
But then comes something supernatural: “And I Myself will make the Land desolate and your enemies who settle in it will be desolated” (v. 32). Writes Rabbi Hirsch: “Everything up to now was the natural working of a conquest which G-d had refrained from curbing; what follows – the permanent desolation of the Land that, whereas under G-d’s blessing developed and extraordinary state of productive perfection, henceforth was to sink below the level even of ordinary productiveness – is as much a direct special touch of the Finger of G-d as was the previous abundance”.
Rabbi Hirsch notes the emphatic tone of “va-hashimoti Ani” – I Myself will make the Land desolate. “The Land will remain desolate, and your enemies who live there in your place will not prosper”.
This follows the Targum Yonatan, who renders: “I, only I alone, will make the Land desolate, so that there will be no pleasantness therein; and thus those who hate you, who dwell therein, will be desolate”.
The Midrash (Sifra, Bekhukkotay 6:2) sees comfort in this. “This is a good attribute, that Israel will not say: Since we have been exiled from our Land, now our enemies will come and find pleasantness therein… Even the enemies who come afterwards will find no pleasantness there”.
History has borne this out with undeniable clarity. The Land of Israel indeed lay desolate and sterile and barren for close on 2,000 years, invaded and conquered by more than a hundred foreign peoples – none of whom ever managed to build anything permanent here, none of who ever regarded the Land as their homeland, none of whom ever managed to coax life out of its sullen soil.
Only when the Jews began to return here as a nation a century and a third ago did the Land begin to be productive once again.
In 1944 the world-renowned soil conservationist Professor Walter Clay Lowdermilk, having spent some years studying Palestine and its agriculture, published his findings in Palestine, Land of Promise.
He wrote: “The decline of Palestine’s land and of the people began with the first Arab invasion during the seventh century… It was not until the wars of the Crusaders during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the second Arab invasion which drove them out, that Palestine was plunged into its age of darkness… The interior…was laid waste and deserted through strife and wars and the plundering of the Bedouins… After the expulsion of the Crusaders and a new invasion by Arab nomads, the decline of Palestine proceeded at an accelerated pace… The decay of Palestine reached its darkest stage in the four hundred years of Turkish rule, from 1517 to 1918” (pages 55-58).
Summing up, he wrote: “[T]he population of Palestine has grown from below half a million in 1900 to more than a million and a half in 1942! The consecrated genius and vision of the Jews in draining swamps and turning sand dunes into orchards and poultry farms, in planting millions of trees on the rocky hills, in building terraces, digging wells, developing irrigation, establishing numerous and varied industries and founding hospitals and clinics, has brought a greatly increased measure of prosperity to Palestine while making possible, not only the settlement of almost half a million Jews in the last twenty-five years, but the doubling of the Arab population in the same period” (page 155).
Less than two years later, on 13th January 1946, the British parliamentarian Richard Crossman, part of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry regarding Palestine, noted in his diary that “Even the Zionists don’t think Palestine could absorb more than one hundred thousand [Jews] a year” (quoted in his book Palestine Mission, page 38).
Little could Crossman or the Zionists he had met in the USA and Palestine know that two and a half years later, with Israel as an independent Jewish state once again, the Land would easily absorb 500,000 Jewish immigrants in the first half year!
Miraculous though Jewish history is, G-d disguises those miracles as nature. Commenting on the opening chapter of Parashat Bekhukkotay, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204) writes: “We have already clarified that all these blessings are miracles, all of them. There is no natural reason for the rains to come or for us to have peace from our enemies and that they should fear us to the extent that a hundred of them should flee from before five of us just because we keep the decrees and the mitzvot, nor [is there any natural reason] for the opposite to happen just because we sow fields in the Shmittah Year. Nevertheless these are hidden miracles, and the world continues in its natural ways with them; but they are well known by being constant throughout the Land” (Commentary to Leviticus 26:11).
G-d rewards and punishes us for keeping or violating the Torah, in ways which appear natural. War and peace, famine and plenty, exile and redemption – none seem miraculous, all seem mundane. The tochachah in Parashat Bekhukkotay, like so much else in the Torah, teaches us to look beyond the mundane, to look beneath the surface, to look above the natural, and to see the miraculous.
It teaches us that every Jew who returns to Israel, every grain of wheat and every fruit that grows today on the Land which was desolate for millennia, every Jewish baby born in the Land which was so hostile until a few generations ago, every military victory that Israel wins against vastly more powerful enemies – all of these are G-d’s direct intervention in human history.