Judaism: In the Eye of the Beholder
The main subject-matter of the Book of Leviticus is the Kehunah (Priesthood) and the mitzvot which either devolve specifically upon the Kohanim (Priests) or in which they play a central role.
And G-d seals this Book of the Kohanim with a message which is directed to the entire nation: “If you will walk in My decrees and keep My mitzvot and do them, then I will give your rains in their appropriate seasons, and the Land will give its produce, and the tree of the field will give its fruit…” (Leviticus 26:3-4). Then follow nine more verses detailing the blessings that G-d will bestow us when we keep His mitzvot in the Land of Israel.
The Torah continues: “And if you will not hear Me and will not do all these mitzvot, and if you reject My statutes, and if your souls are disgusted by My ordinances, not doing all My mitzvot and violating My covenant…” (vs. 14-15) and then follow dozens of verses of curses of ever-increasing severity, the result of rejecting G-d and His Torah and His mitzvot.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946) divides this Tochachah (Admonition, Castigation) into five categories: sickness and defeat (vs. 16-17), famine (vs. 18-20), wild beasts (vs. 21-22) the horrors of siege (vs. 23-26), and finally national destruction and exile (vs. 27-41).
Each of these sections begins with the condition that we do not obey the Torah: “And if you will not hear Me and will not do all these mitzvot…” (v. 14); “And if until these [curses] you will not listen to Me…” (v.18); “And if you will walk casually with Me…” (v. 21); “And if even with these you will not be corrected to Me and you walk casually with Me…” (v. 23); “And if even with all this you will not listen to Me and you walk casually with Me…” (v. 27).
Seven times in this section (verses 21, 23, 24, 27, 28, 40, and 41) the Torah uses the unusual word “kerry”, which we have provisionally translated here as “casually” (“…you will walk indifferently with Me…”, “I will walk indifferently with you…”). The word “kerry” appears nowhere else in the Tanach, and is therefore somewhat open to interpretation.
Targum Onkelos understands it to means “contrariness”, “stubbornness”, hence “if you stubbornly walk contrary to Me…I will stubbornly walk contrary to you…”, which interpretation is cited by Tosafot to Rosh Hashanah 16a, s.v. she-eira ba kerry.
Rashi, the Yalkut Shimoni (Bechukkotay, 674), the Aruch ha-Shulchan (Orach Chayim 191:5), and the Mishnah Berurah (191:5) see “kerry” 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 “kerry” 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, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 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 and in his Epistle to Yemen), and Rabbeinu Yonah (The Gates of Repentance, Second Gate, Paragraph 2) all follow Targum Yonatan’s understanding.
Our perception of events controls events. As long as we recognise that events are not happenstance, G-d will reward and punish us in accordance with our actions, His punishments will remain proportionate, and will not cross a certain threshold. But if we refuse to perceive His control over events, then His fury breaks previous boundaries.
It is related that when Dov Ber Schneuri, who would later become the second Lubavitcher Rebbe (popularly known as the Mitteler Rebbe), was a young man, he was sent on a mission.
Dov Ber Schneuri’s mission took him away from Liadi, away from his father’s community, and he heard Parashat Bechukkotay read in a synagogue far from home. Upon hearing the blood-curdling, chilling, terrifying curses in the Tochachah he began crying. He was cast into depression, and came close to a complete nervous breakdown, a mental condition from which it took him months to recover.
The people who witnessed this were puzzled. After all, they asked him, had he not heard these words dozens of times before?
Dov Ber Schneuri’s response was simple: “Wenn Tatti lehnt, es is gur andersch!” (“When my father reads, it’s completely different!”).
Throughout his life, Dov Ber Schneuri had heard these words read from the Torah by his father, Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, popularly known as the Alter Rebbe and the Ba’al ha-Tanya. And when Rebbe Shneur Zalman would read the Tochachah, his son never heard curses – only blessings.
“I will make your heavens as iron…” (v. 19), protecting you from any harm; “…and your earth like copper” (ibid.), such that you will have all your metal utensils provided free.
“Ten women will bake your bread in one oven” (v. 26), because Jews will come together in such unity of love. What greater joy can there be than so many Jewish women congregating to bake their challot together?!
“You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat” (v. 28) – your sons and daughters will all keep kosher, you will eat their meat without any doubts that their standards of kashrut may have dropped.
One by one, Dov Ber Schneuri explained how, throughout the years that he had heard his father, the Alter Rebbe, read all these warnings, he had never before heard a single curse.
The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 9a-b) relates a parallel story. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay sent his son, Rabbi Elazar, to Rabbi Yonatan ben Asmai and Rabbi Yehudah, son of converts, to receive their blessings.
Their blessings sounded peculiar, to say the least: “May it be His will that you will sow but will not reap, that you will bring in and not bring out, that what goes out you will not bring in, that your house be made desolate and your inn be inhabited, that your table be made chaotic, and that you do not see a new year”.
Rabbi Elazar returned to his father, understandably distressed, and told his father of their wishes for him.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay comforted his son: “These are all blessings.
‘That you will sow but will not reap’ – you will beget sons and they will not die.
‘That you will bring in and not bring out’ – you will bring daughters-in-law home, and because your sons will not die they will not have to leave.
‘That what goes out you will not bring in’ –you will beget daughters whose husbands will not die, so they will not need to come back to you.
‘That your house be made desolate and your inn be inhabited’ – this world is your inn [i.e. merely a temporary dwelling] and the Next World your house [i.e. your permanent dwelling]….
‘That your table be made chaotic’ – with sons and daughters.
‘That you do not see a new year’ – that your wife will not die so you will not have to marry a new wife”.
Though the Tochachah in Parashat Bechukkotay seems gloomy, frightening, leading to despair, curses are in the eye of the beholder. One of the curses which G-d threatens is that, during our time in exile, “I will give your cities over to ruins and I will make your sanctuaries desolate… I Myself will make the Land desolate, and your enemies who live therein will be desolate” (vs. 31-32).
Is this a curse? It may sound so, but the Sifra understands differently: “This is a benefit, that Israel will not say: Since we have been exiled from our Land, now the enemies come and find equanimity therein, as it says ‘your enemies who live therein will be desolate’. Even the enemies who come after this will find no equanimity” (Sifra, Bechukkotay section 2, 6:5).
Rashi (commentary to verse 32) cites this Midrash, and the Ramban (commentary to verse 16) also cites it and expands upon it: “When the Torah says ‘your enemies who live therein will be desolate’ – this is good tidings, announcing that throughout all the exiles our Land will not accept our enemies. This is also a great proof and an assurance for us: throughout human habitation, you will find no land which is as good and generous, which has always been inhabited – and yet which is as ruinous as this Land is! Because ever since we left it, it has never accepted any nation or language; even though they all try to populate it, none of them succeed”.
The Ramban was writing in the late 13th century, when centuries of Moslem invasion and mismanagement, followed by Crusader invasions which led to constant fighting between the Christian Crusaders and different Moslem invaders, all of which were compounded by the then-recent brief Mongol conquest of 1259, left the Land uninhabitable.
The subsequent three-quarters of a millennium of history have borne out the Ramban’s words with even greater clarity – particularly the last century-and-a-half or so, when the Land of Israel, for the first time since the Roman conquest, began to give forth its fruits as generously as it once did – and solely for the Jewish nation.
For the first time the Land “accepted a nation and language”: for the first time since the Roman conquest the Land of Israel has a settled indigenous population with its political independence and its own language.
Is this coincidence? Do we “walk ‘kerry’ with G-d”, ascribing the resurrection of the Land of Israel to mere coincidence and happenstance?
Coincidence is, indeed, in the eyes of the beholder. And so too, often, are curses and blessings.